On the morning of September 11, 2001, my alarm awoke me around 6:30AM and I did what I always try to do before dragging myself from bed: I rolled over, grabbed my notebook and pen, and jotted notes on whatever dream images I could recall from the night before. That morning I noted dreaming about driving past a pair of identical “mosques”—distinctly low, 1-story buildings, perfectly square in plan, with drab corduroy-like facades—on a street near where I grew up in Lakewood, Colorado. They were in exactly the site of an office building where, in real life (and about 30 years earlier) my father had briefly had his psychology practice, before moving his office to a nearby bank building.
I had never dreamed of “mosques” before, nor anything with Islamic overtones that I could recall. Islam was not on my radar. The only detail whose meaning I grasped at the time was the one-story-ness of the buildings (i.e., the opposite of tall buildings); my dreams have periodically featured “low buildings” as well as ruined towers that, I had figured out from a decade or more of psychoanalytic dream interpretation, mainly had a standard “castration” symbolism—stereotypical Freudian stuff, and not very remarkable. It was only in hindsight that I realized how the corduroy appearance of my dream “mosques” matched the distinctive corrugated facade of the towers that came crashing down that day.
I’m hardly the only person to have dreamed of something plausibly connected to 9/11 in the days before the event. A quick internet search turns up numerous pages of more remarkable stories of vivid dreams and visions. Bonnie McEneaney, who lost her husband in the attack, recalls in her book Messages that her husband had been gripped for months by a certainty that an attack was imminent and that he was soon to die. And 9/11 ‘prophecies’ go well beyond such narratives that are necessarily biased by hindsight (and thus fail all scientific standards of reliability). The number of ominous-seeming prophetic artworks, images, etc. unmistakeably produced prior to the 9/11 attacks but seeming to depict them is rather staggering, as a quick Internet search also reveals.
For example, issue #596 of The Adventures of Superman, released on September 12, 2001 (but obviously drawn and written sometime in the weeks immediately preceding the disaster), shows the towers smoldering after being attacked in a superhero conflict. The issue was promptly recalled by the publisher, DC Comics, making it now something of a collectors item. Even more uncanny is the bronze 1999 sculpture Tar Baby vs St. Sebastian by Michael Richards (below), in which the artist depicts himself as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, standing very erect (and building-like), being pierced by numerous planes. Could it have been inspired by a premonitory dream or vision of his own death in his studio on the 92nd floor of Tower One on 9/11?
Any man who was a kid in the 1970s may also have been reminded, as the disaster unfolded that morning, of Dino DeLaurentis’s 1976 remake of King Kong, in which the giant ape scaled the then-new twin towers (instead of the Empire State Building) because they reminded him of a pair of rocks he had loved to climb back home on Skull Island. Sci-fi artist John Berkey’s publicity poster for that movie (bottom of this post), with its exploding planes, is eerie in hindsight—as are countless other images in ads, cartoons, or films showing the towers being attacked by or simply standing in ominous juxtaposition to aircraft, and these have of course fueled conspiracy theories about US government foreknowledge of (or involvement in) the attacks.
Perhaps the most amazing portent of the attacks, though—for me anyway—was Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the still unfinished towers in 1974, as depicted in the documentary Man on Wire. As when the towers fell 27 years later, witnesses on the ground were shocked, awed, thrilled, and terrified, watching this French daredevil blithely balance on a cable 1,350 feet in the air that he had strung between the towers with the help of a bow-and-arrow and a couple accomplices. It is amazing to me, because it is as if the 27-year lifespan of the World Trade Center, that audacious symbol of American power and capitalism, was book-ended or framed by two highly symmetrical events: audacious aerial conquests, both pulled off with great stealth and ingenuity by foreigners who had trained extensively and in secret, for months, astonishing and frightening the crowds below who couldn’t believe their eyes.
A Night to Misremember
Skeptic Martin Gardner would probably have called any attempt to sift the “impossible” from the merely slightly improbable in the long list of “9/11 prophecies” misguided. In a book on the similarly uncanny predictions of the Titanic disaster, he writes that such problems are “not well formed”: “There is no way to estimate, even crudely, the relevant probabilities.” With the Titanic, as with 9/11, there were dreams and premonitions—or at least ones recollected after the fact. For example, in an excellent 1982 In Search Of episode, an elderly survivor, Eva Hart, who had been seven at the time, recalled that her mother had had a terrible premonition that their voyage would be fatal. Hart’s father indeed was lost with most of the other men aboard the ship, although she and her mother made it into to the lifeboats. Gardner lists other similar examples in his book.
But the most famous prophecy of the Titanic’s sinking—and Gardner’s main focus—is Morgan Robertson’s 1898 novel Futility, or The Wreck of the Titan, which appears to have foretold the disaster down to myriad “impossible” details, including not only the ship’s name (Titan), its tonnage and size, its passenger capacity, its insufficient lifeboats, the iceberg that hit it and where on the ship it struck, the exact location in the Atlantic where it sank, and even the month (April). These details seem amazing when presented in isolation, but Gardner shows that when you put them in context, some of the uncanniness dwindles. For example, the White Star Line had actually published its intentions to build a ship of the Titanic’s scale before Robertson wrote his novel, and in fact even its name could have even been pretty accurately predicted based on the names of the company’s other ships. Also, fear of fatally hitting icebergs in the North Atlantic was a very real one at the time, and this would have been natural fodder for a writer of modern sea yarns.
In his book The Sublime Object of Ideology, Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek takes this argument one step further. He notes that the disaster corresponded closely to the political-economic-cultural unconscious of the time, and for this reason took on an a weight of symbolic overdetermination that caused it to appear synchronistic in hindsight. Not only was the ship itself easy to predict in its dimensions and even its name, but some disaster or comeuppance befalling the blithe elite was also easy to anticipate. Žižek writes, “even before it actually happened, there was already a place opened, reserved for it in fantasy space. It had such a terrific impact on the ’social imaginary’ by virtue of the fact that it was expected.” In other words, if it hadn’t been the Titanic sinking, it could easily have been something else. And if Robertson’s novel hadn’t predicted it, it could have been some other novel.
Žižek is suggesting that we would not have been nearly as obsessed with “the Titanic” now or even, arguably, right afterward, had it not been for how uncomfortably closely it happened to match a zeitgeist, the mood of the ending of an era of peaceful progress and stable class distinctions that preceded it. Indeed it was this coincidence—not just with Robertson’s novel but with the whole mood of the times—that actually made it such a trauma, not the other way around, and this is why so much ink has been spilled to interpret and find meaning in it. People incessantly examined the disaster to explain how the “unthinkable” could have happened, and in the process, inevitably turned up a coincidence that looks truly uncanny in in hindsight. Žižek would say the “coincidence” is really a kind of perspective mistake: allowing the retroactive rearranging of symbolic meanings to influence how we perceive the ordinary march of causality.
When we place 9/11 in context, too, some of its coincidences seem less uncanny. The size, stature, and indeed audacity of the towers invited fantasies of audacious conquest, which could readily be expected to be expressed not only in actual real-life terror attacks but also in comic books, disaster movies, and acrobatic stunts. Indeed, terrorists had already attempted to destroy them, which surely planted the seeds of the idea in the collective unconscious as well as in the minds of those who worked in the towers.
But at a certain point—although admittedly that point is fuzzy—the parsimony of the skeptical explanations dwindles relative to the “paranormal” explanation. No amount of evidence for this will sway a hardened skeptic, but abundant evidence for precognition, premonition, and precognitive dreaming exists in parapsychology research. If we are willing to accept any of it as valid, then it means any explanation or account of 9/11 that fails to take into account how such a monumentally traumatic event may have been at least unconsciously foreseen—not by “the government” but by ordinary people, and expressed in their dreams and creative artworks—would actually be inadequate and distorted.
The great dream interpreter of the 20th century was of course Freud. His legacy, psychoanalysis, is often thought of as the rule of the present by the past (or as director P.T. Anderson puts it in his Fortean film Magnolia: “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us”). But that’s not completely true in Freud and even less true in some of his followers. The past is always given its meaning in the present, and so the influence of the past always changes. As events inscribe themselves in our ongoing refashioning of memory, we constantly rearrange the past and give it new symbolic shape. Memory readily selects from its infinite storehouse of associations those that match true events, and produce what can look in retrospect like “impossible” coincidences or the inexorable workings of fate. Since we tend to remember events that are significant to us, it produces what might be called a synchronistic bias to our perception.
If we are going to defend a truly synchronistic or paranormal argument for prophetic dreams, visions, and artworks, we need to confront this psychoanalytic argument: that the associative architecture of memory itself is an “acausal connecting principle,” and that what we live as open-ended in the present can in hindsight look deterministic—even uncannily so—when it is not.
An example of this could be Mark Twain’s precognitive dream about his brother Henry’s death, which Jeffrey Kripal describes in his recent book Comparing Religions. Twain reported that in 1858 he had a dream of his brother lying in a metal casket in a suit of his own clothes and with a bouquet on his chest; a few weeks after this dream, Twain wrote, he received news that Henry had been injured in a boiler explosion aboard the steamboat they were both working on; Henry later died of an overdose of morphine given to kill his pain. In the morgue, Twain beheld the exact scene from his dream, including the clothes and the exact bouquet. It sounds uncanny, but in a series of posts on his very interesting blog, Journal of a UFO Investigator, religion scholar David Halperin does some keen Freudian literary forensics to reexamine the story, putting it back in context and bringing in some very telling clues from Twain’s fictional works about the conflicted feelings the writer held for his more upstanding, “goody-goody” brother.
Halperin deduces from evidence of intense brotherly resentment in Twain’s fiction that he would have had a lifelong unconscious death wish for Henry, and thus would probably have had many dreams, over the years, about him dying. It thus (according to Halperin’s reasoning) might not actually be too strange a coincidence for Twain, upon seeing his brother in a coffin after an unfortunate boiler accident on a Mississippi River steamboat, to recall having dreamed approximately the same thing and formed the notion that he had had a premonitory dream about it. It is significant, Halperin suggests, that Twain never wrote his dream down and never told anybody about it until 1884, and only wrote about it in 1906, giving his memory ample time—almost half a century—to sort and rearrange events into a more seamless narrative of psychic connection … and brotherly love. Halperin might have added that Twain’s retrospective interpretation at that late date would have fit well with the then-recent theories of psychical research pioneer Frederic W.H. Myers, that trauma is the energy fueling psychic phenomena like telepathy and, perhaps, premonitory dreams.
Psychoanalysis has always provided a halfway house for people who on one hand share Hamlet’s humanistic sense that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in reductive materialistic philosophy but who are nevertheless a bit afraid of the truly supernatural—or what we would now call paranormal—alternative: a universe in which things like ESP and ghosts really exist, and in which the mind can know the future or interact with matter in some mysteriously occult fashion. It’s a halfway house I myself have lived in most of my adult life. Halperin himself admits to precisely this ambivalence in another blog post on Robertson’s novelistic ‘prediction’ of the Titanic disaster: “I don’t want to believe in precognition,” he writes; “The philosophical implications are too daunting.”
But being biased against belief makes us no more clear-headed about the issues involved than wanting to believe. At what point does resolute skepticism force us to accept explanations that are actually more convoluted than what really appears to be going on, however “impossible”—that information, or emotion, is just ‘simply’ traveling backward in time from a monumentally upsetting/traumatic event? Even Twain’s dream, which is easily given a more or less mundane psychoanalytic explanation when taken in isolation, appears far more plausibly premonitory when placed alongside the countless similar examples through the history of dream recording and psychical research—mountains and mountains of cases, all fitting a fairly specific pattern of traumatic events sending shock waves through space and time via some sort of psychic ether.
We Are All Murderers
In his Freudian flight from precognition, Halperin hits on something crucial, I think, about the case of Twain’s dream, which I think applies to the dreams and prophecies of the Titanic and 9/11 too, and which also points to an interesting new way of thinking about the intersection of psychoanalysis and parapsychology and the paranormal dimensions of trauma.
He points out that, far from welcoming the reality of Henry’s accidental death on the Mississippi, Twain would have reacted with guilt. That’s the normal reaction when a person finds that dark wishes they had casually or unconsciously harbored have (impossibly) come true. This is because in our irrational, superstitious unconscious minds, we feel responsible for actually causing the calamities we’ve dimly thought of or wished for.
Žižek could have keyed in on the role played by guilt in the Titanic story too: The trauma of the Titanic was not merely the fact that everyone had been expecting some spectacular disaster to befall the rich and then were shocked when it happened; the trauma was that they had actually been wishing for such a disaster—in exactly the same way Twain may have vaguely or unconsciously wished for his brother’s death. Indeed many who saw the front page of The New York Times on April 15, 1912 must have felt on some very dim unconscious nonrational level that their wishes/desires had actually somehow caused the iceberg to sink the ship—it’s just the way the unconscious mind (which is itself like the huge dangerous submerged portion of an iceberg) works.
It is a psychoanalytic commonplace that, in our unconscious, we are all murderers. When real events accidentally fulfill our unconscious wishes—serve them up to us on a platter—people react with weird conflicting emotions they can’t fully acknowledge or process. News of the Titanic’s sinking would have produced in people not directly touched by the tragedy an unbearable and even unspeakable mix of contradictory emotions that included shock, horror, and sympathy, but also fascination and excitement, as well as a vague guilt for (unconsciously at least) having harbored murderous class resentments focused on the cosmopolitan elite they read about in The New York Times’ society pages. They would have thus “enjoyed” the news—eagerly read the story and talked about it, feeling a complex mix of weird fascination and excitement and guilt as well as horror.
What we particularly fear to see is a “body” that reminds us of our guilty enjoyment. Thus when the Titanic’s remains were finally discovered by Robert Ballard’s undersea cameras in the early 1980s, National Geographic readers gazed on the shadowy photos with a spooked fascination or even a kind of vertigo. Žižek wrote that, “By looking at the [Titanic] wreck we gain an insight into the forbidden domain, into a space that should be left unseen: visible fragments are a kind of coagulated remnant of the liquid flux of jouissance, a kind of petrified forest of enjoyment.”
9/11 reflects this same phenomenon, of course. For Americans who did not live in Manhattan or work at the Pentagon and who didn’t actually lose loved ones or friends in the attacks, the objective horror of the deaths and destruction and the feeling of national vulnerability were not the sole source of the trauma; the trauma included an added, unspeakable dimension: the contradiction between these aversive facts and our own guilty enjoyment of the cinematic spectacle, our awe at its audacity, and the incredibly warm, positive collective emotions we all shared in days following. This unspeakable enjoyment, not “the thing itself,” explains our collective obsession, re-watching the planes crashing into the towers again and again and again, dwelling endlessly on images of the towers’ wreckage in the poisonous haze, re-living and commemorating that day in our imaginations and our words.
Just as the Titanic fell conveniently into a fantasy space that history had prepared for it, 9/11 fell into a fantasy space that had been prepared for it by decades of disaster cinema and growing social antagonisms. No matter what side of the political fence you were on, it gave everyone mission and meaning—either to go and teach the Muslim world a lesson or to stand up for human rights and intercultural tolerance in a time when our country’s core values seemed in danger of evaporating. 9/11 made us all feel important, and it temporarily gave us back our national pride and unity.
Frederic Myers thought trauma was the energy underlying psychic connections between people, an argument developed by Kripal: “strong emotion (pathos), particularly around trauma and death, is the most common catalyst of robust paranormal events. Trauma, it seems, is what ‘electrifies,’ ‘zaps,’ or ‘magnetizes,’ and hence empowers the imagination. Trauma is the technology of telepathy.” I want to suggest, though, that “trauma” doesn’t quite capture what it was that may have echoed back through time, feeding people’s dreams and premonitions and artworks in the days, months, and decades prior to 9/11/2001 (or prior to April 14, 1912); it was rather the unacceptable mix of horror, guilt, giddy excitement, and awe—the way we derive enjoyment from tragedy, which cannot be consciously acknowledged—that carried that psi signal. Lacanian psychoanalysis calls it jouissance.
No Known Outside the Known
There is no equivalent word in English that captures the pleasurable-painful horror-in-bliss (or blissful horror) of jouissance—it is usually translated simply as enjoyment—but it is one of the core concepts in Lacanian psychoanalysis. Symptoms had been understood by Freud to be a way of “working through” or exorcising the pain of traumatic events or thoughts via repetition, but Lacan reversed this conception: Symptoms are actually the way we reorganize our life in order to continue to derive a secret enjoyment from something that consciously causes us suffering, pain, or revulsion. Symptoms are repetitious, ritualistic acts that attempt to manage this contradiction. The warp of our imaginary-symbolic spacetime produced by this contradiction, and our inability to be rid of our jouissance, something that is always “glued to our heel” (as Lacan put it), is what causes the strange tail-chasing, repetitive “orbiting” behavior of all neurotic symptoms. Could it also account for the spacetime distortions seen in precognitive and premonitory phenomena?
Jouissance, the secret painful enjoyment at the dark heart of our symptoms, is the “only substance acknowledged by psychoanalysis,” according to Žižek. Because it exists beyond symbolism and imagination, this unspeakable enjoyment belongs to the domain that Lacan called the Real—basically, the unknown and unknowable. Its unknowability accounts for the way we have trouble localizing it, either in ourselves (where we don’t quite want it) or in others who are presumed to have stolen it from us (the basic fantasy at the root of racism and sexism). The farther away we imagine “our” lost enjoyment, the bigger it seems to be, almost like the “dolly zoom” special effect used in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
The fact that enjoyment belongs to the radically unknown space of the Real contains potentially interesting implications for parapsychology. Because enjoyment exists suspended in a protected or bottled state of unknowability (the symptom that preserves our proximity and distance), it is like the wave function in Quantum physics: It cannot be subjected to measure and differentiation and localization. It is literally “nonlocal” in both time and space. The symptom is thus an atemporal, acausal construct that defies rational analysis because its meaning-cause—its reason for being, as explained in words—lies always somewhere off in the future.
Žižek has described at length in his books how jouissance plays a sort of acausal role in our symptoms; he has always invoked science fiction stories (and Wagner’s Parsifal—see my “Passion of Einstein” post) to illustrate how psychoanalytic symptoms are actually caused by a future event that also cures them, through a kind of “time-loop” logic. Careful to avoid any hint of paranormal thinking or the dreaded “New Age obscurantism,” he is cautious to specify that he is referring to the retroactive reordering of the symbolic universe discussed previously: the way meaning only exists in the present configuration of symbols and signifiers, which are constantly being reshuffled and transformed (in other words, the past that the present affects is simply the known past, the past as it appears in hindsight through the symbolically structured filters or overlay of our perception and memory).
But this strikes me as a defense mechanism of a briliiant materialist whose brilliance has led him—oops—to discover the insufficiency of material causation. Because consider: There is no known outside the known. Once you grant that enjoyment exists outside the known, in the domain of the Real, you cannot then specify that it has any knowable properties—such as only existing here and now and not anyplace else, or traveling in only one temporal direction. (You can’t even exactly say what emotion it corresponds to—it’s sort of all of them, and none.)
So, what if we take literally, rather than figuratively, the idea that enjoyment is radically outside of knowability and locality? Could enjoyment, particularly when it is bottled in a symptom, be a kind of nonlocal medium that not only connects people across space (telepathy) but also connects people to themselves through time?
Remember: As J.W. Dunne noted in his An Experiment With Time, precognitive or premonitory dreams aren’t about future events, they are about one’s own learning of those events. What I’m proposing builds on this assumption: It may not be traumatic events per se that reverberate through the psychic ether, but rather our own ‘jouissant’ reaction to learning of those events. It is this reaction, which we have no way of consciously understanding, that gets turned into premonitory dreams and art.
Eating From the Same Plate
Throughout his books, Žižek likens enjoyment (the one and only substance) to the identical green mush eaten by the separate diners at a chic restaurant in the movie Brazil, each of whom has their own unique picture of what their meal should be standing over identical formless lumps the plates. The idea is that enjoyment is all the same, there’s only one enjoyment, even though we all perceive it differently, within different symbolic and imaginary frames, and thus have a difficult or impossible time recognizing that our enjoyment is actually shared. The diners are all eating the same formless enjoyment … but to make the analogy fully correct, fully true to Žižek’s own argument, the diners should all actually be eating from the same plate—for if it is truly unknowable and unmeasurable, this substance of the Real cannot be divided or differentiated or portioned; their “separate plates” are really mirage reflection of a single plate of enjoyment, “one thing.”
More to the point, if the diners all eat from the same plate, that same plate could be eaten simultaneously by themselves in the past, and future. If we think of jouissance this way, like an ‘out of space and time’ singularity we are all in contact with, it could serve as precisely the “acausal connecting principle” that Jung was looking for in his somewhat muddled concept of synchronicity.
A dream that amazingly comes true, or a premonitory obsession that is verified, or a creative artistic inspiration that is uncannily mirrored in a real future event are all examples of “symptoms” in miniature: Irrational behaviors or thoughts or feelings that find their meaning or “answer” only in some unsettling or traumatic future occurrence. Perhaps it is even precisely our effort to “repress” the unacceptable part of our traumas—that is, to split them and bury the half we don’t want to see (our enjoyment)—that results in acausal, atemporal phenomena like precognitive dreams and premonitions.
Freud wrote of “the return of the repressed,” although it is the concept of repression that has tarnished his reputation most among scientific psychologists: While the unconscious exists, no evidence has ever been found for repression. Supposedly ‘repressed’ memories that are ‘recovered’ in hypnosis or therapy, for instance, are often false or fabulated. Real, verifiable traumas are forgotten and remain inarticulable, hard to put into words because we lacked the necessary concepts at the time they happened, but they are not actively buried by any censoring force in the psyche. A trauma victim usually awakens to the trauma spontaneously at some point, not with the ‘aid’ of discredited methods like hypnosis. But what about the unbearable contradictory feelings that might accompany a trauma? What about the unbearable dimension of enjoyment?
Perhaps repression does exist in some sense, and we have been looking for it in the wrong place. What if our symptoms are able to sequester certain thoughts or feelings, for instance guilty feelings about enjoying something objectively horrible, in a place they really can’t be found—the past? Perhaps it is precisely our repressed jouissance that “returns” in our own past, where we can have no way of understanding its meaning. If something like that is the case, then our present symptoms may contain the “repressed” of our future.
To illustrate on a small scale how temporally displaced repressed jouissance might exert a causal influence on the past via a symptom, let’s consider another uncanny case of “death on the Mississippi.” On his always interesting blog The Secret Sun, Christopher Knowles devoted a series of posts to the synchronistic perfect storm that surrounded the life, loves, and career of Scottish singer Elizabeth Fraser (right), the lead singer of Cocteau Twins (and also one of my favorite musical artists). In the mid-1990s, Fraser entered into an obsessive, intense romance with the singer Jeff Buckley (below), who had just published a wildly critically acclaimed debut album (Grace) revealing an astonishing talent that mirrored that of his father Tim Buckley. The elder Buckley had died young of a drug overdose in 1975 without really ever getting to know his son, and it was hearing Fraser’s haunting cover of his father’s 1970 “Song to the Siren” in 1994 that, according to Knowles, drove Buckley to seek out Fraser, at which point they became intensely involved for a couple of years.
Their intense/obsessive relationship was on-again/off-again, and eventually Buckley left Fraser, becoming involved with another woman. It was around this time that he sequestered himself in a rented house in Memphis to write songs for his second album. Just as his musicians were on their way to Memphis to begin recording—literally, while they were in the air—Buckley took an impromptu swim in a tributary of the Mississippi and got caught in the undertow generated by a passing boat. His body was found a couple days later.
The coincidences and premonitions are too numerous to summarize (you should just read Knowles’ posts), but at their core are the fact that Fraser’s entire career seems in hindsight like a protracted achingly beautiful omen of Buckley’s death. She wrote and sang again and again about water, drowning, and sirens luring people to a watery grave (“Lorelei,” “Sea, Swallow Me,” etc.). Indeed her cover of Jeff’s father’s “Song to the Siren” (about being drawn to a siren who rejects her, and whom she then pleads to come be enfolded in her watery arms), for the supergroup This Mortal Coil’s album It’ll End in Tears, is one of her best-known performances. That was indeed a “siren song” in the sense that it summoned Jeff Buckley to her, and in hindsight was just one of many songs (you should also look at Cocteau Twins’ videos and album covers) whose imagery of water and loss seemed to foretell to the disaster to come. Fraser received news of Buckley’s death when in a studio in England recording the song “Teardrop” with the band Massive Attack for their album Mezzanine—another high point in her brilliant career, which largely faded after that point.
Again, there’s no way to measure coincidence. Is this all just a reshuffling and reordering of events in hindsight to construct a “destined” meaning to Jeff Buckley’s death? We can never disprove that, but Knowles does a good job of persuading that something more had to be going on. But if so, what? The standard archetypal, “synchromystic” explanation would be that somehow the “siren” archetype imprinted itself on history via these hapless individuals, who, as Knowles suggests, “were merely acting out roles written for them long before their grandparents were born.”
A skeptic willing to minimally accept that Buckley’s drowning was more than coincidence but that there was nothing paranormal occurring could go the halfway-house psychoanalytic route, offering that Fraser’s siren obsession infected Buckley’s unconscious mind and gave specific form (drowning) to an unconscious death wish, perhaps somehow to follow his father to an early grave. Less boldly, you could also suggest her obsession with water spilled over (so to speak) onto Buckley and simply increased his statistical likelihood (a) of taking spontaneous swims and (b) of perishing in the water. Žižek, for whom the past is constantly being reshuffled and given new meaning within the present Symbolic order, would probably say Buckley’s drowning was like a final psychoanalytic interpretation that “answered” Fraser’s symptom (i.e., her career) and effectively cured her of it. Indeed, as Knowles notes, Fraser has seemed to have lost her otherworldly muse and become, perhaps for better as well as worse, just a normal human being in its aftermath. In all these variants, the apparent synchronicity only appears as such in hindsight.
But if we grant that intense/traumatic enjoyment may operate nonlocally in a person’s life, I would propose that the most parsimonious and even realistic explanation of the coincidences surrounding Fraser and Buckley would be one that takes Žižek’s cautious symptom retrocausality and literalizes it: The death of Fraser’s eventual lover and muse, Jeff Buckley, was a trauma that reverberated backward in time along the resonating string of her creative enjoyment, becoming an inchoate idee fixe that appeared again and again and again in her music. Fraser channeled or drew from this trauma as the source and inspiration for most of her career, without having any way to recognize that it was a terrible future shock that she was feeling, seeing, or channeling.
Enjoyment as a Carrier
“Ready to sing, my sixth sense peacefully placed on my breath,
and listening, my ears know that my eyes are closed”
—Elizabeth Fraser/Massive Attack, “Group Four”
According to Knowles, Fraser claimed in the early 1990s that she had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child. This is possibly significant. Creative people are often “driven” (perhaps not the right word) by a trauma in their past, and I believe it is something of a commonplace in studies of paranormal phenomena that some early trauma (like abuse, or a death of a parent or sibling, or a difficult birth) is often found in people receptive to otherworldly or paranormal events. Also, given what we know about the psychotherapeutic zeitgeist of the 1990s and the tendency to overinterpret or embellish (and in many cases invent, though I’m not suggesting that here) abuse trauma memories, she may even have misrecognized or overemphasized the pain driving her as her past abuse trauma when the trauma was “really” something ahead in the future she had no way of knowing about or believing in. Could her outrageous creative talent have been like a short circuit between the twin traumas bookending her career?
In other words, I am not trying to explain Buckley’s death here: That was, I am proposing (for the sake of argument), “just” an accident. I am trying to explain the retroactive effect his death might have had on a woman’s creativity (and heck, maybe even his own father’s creativity all the way back in 1970 when he wrote “Song to the Siren”). Buckley’s death’s appearance of meaningfulness was the illusory result of his lover’s whole lifetime oeuvre leading up to it; but (and here’s where it becomes ‘paranormal’) that body of work was indeed motivated by, inspired by, that future death and the complex unbearable feelings it would provoke in her, which reverberated into the past, along the atemporal resonating string of her creative jouissance (her “sixth sense … placed on her breath,” as she describes it in the song “Group Four”). (On his blog, Bruce Duensing speculates that fear is a “carrier wave” for paranormal phenomena; I think carrier wave is a great metaphor, so long as we replace “fear” with jouissance.)
Here’s the thing, though: The shock of Buckley’s death would have been not only the trauma of his loss (she had already lost him effectively, as he had broken up with her), but the way his drowning revealed the “true meaning” of all her songs, the way it perfectly fit or matched the space her own art had repeatedly created for it, effectively confirming, at least on an unconscious level, that she was indeed the otherworldly powerful medium and “siren” that she had always allowed herself to be perceived as. How could her unconscious mind not have felt a terrible glee and awe (as well as guilt) for precisely what Knowles even intimates her siren powers actually might have done, which was channel or focus obscure dark magical forces that perhaps drew Buckley to his doom?
I’m doubtful Fraser’s witch powers actually reached out across the ocean and drew Buckley into the Mississippi, but Fraser’s unconscious mind might have believed precisely that possibility, and this would have added to the trauma, making his death “speak louder” into the past, back along that resonating string (or carrier wave) of her creativity. Her guilty enjoyment would have been her unconscious belief in the power of her own siren song. Her symptom—her music—through its repetition of themes of sirens and drowning, could have boosted the ‘gain’ of the painful guilty enjoyment-signal she was receiving from the future, amplifying the obviousness of the coincidence (and thus the traumatic shock) when she learned that Buckley died and the way he had died.
This is all (wild) speculation, obviously. But I do think the dark complexity of our reactions to traumas, ranging from minor emotional disturbances to personal tragedies to terrorist attacks, could be the key not only to premonitory dreams and like phenomena but also to understanding many apparent synchronicities. Some synchronicities could really be misrecognized precognition of our own guilty enjoyment.
A classic motif in science fiction is that humanity ventures to the farthest reaches of space only to find, impossibly, something of our own that we had forgotten. Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris, about a planet covered by a viscous ocean that manufactures simulacra from its observers’ unconscious, is probably the purest expression of this idea.
The backstory of Lem’s novel is that the planet Solaris captured the interest of its discoverers because of its impossible stable orbit around its double star. Exploration revealed that its ocean somehow, perhaps sentiently, shifted the planet’s center of mass to steer it in its orbit. But even more mysteriously, it generated beautiful sculptural forms, rising high into the atmosphere and then dissolving back into it a few hours or days later. This ocean seemed dimly and inscrutably intelligent, so a station was placed in orbit to observe and study it. After several decades of study, spawning a whole library of inconclusive research and scientific controversy, some of the forms generated by the ocean started to resemble human tools and objects, as though pulled from the memories of the scientists observing it. One scientist reports seeing a giant baby rise above the waves out of the fog, but most of his colleagues think he is crazy.
When the protagonist Kris Kelvin arrives on the station to investigate a suspected breakdown among its small crew, he finds that synthetic people from the scientists’ pasts have started to appear on the station, confronting them with their own darkest desires and painful regrets, driving them to the brink of madness—and one even to suicide. Soon after his arrival, a perfect simulacrum of his ex-wife Rhea, who had committed suicide after he cruelly abandoned her years earlier, appears in his quarters, without any memory of how she got there.
Solaris has been adapted twice for the screen—by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and by Steven Soderberg in 2002. Both adaptations concentrate on the ambivalent romance that develops between Kelvin and his resurrected ex, largely ignoring the planet itself and its mimetic ocean-forms. This is unfortunate (and it disappointed Lem too), because Solaris the planet is one of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring creations in science fiction.
Lem, who died in 2009, remains unsurpassed in his imagining of the possibilities of alien intelligence and human incapability to interpret or understand it. With Solaris, I have no doubt the Polish writer was inspired by the most alien form of our own human intelligence: hypnagogia, the baffling and surreal imagery generated by the unconscious that can be seen clearly on the edge of sleep and in meditative states.
Digesting the Now
Hypnagogic imagery have no doubt inspired art and religion since the dawn of humanity. It was an early scientific observer of hypnagogic phenomena, the psychoanalyst Herbert Silberer, who first noted that these images are often or perhaps always “autosymbolic”—they represent, usually in an astonishingly clever way, some immediate thought or some preoccupation right now, right at the instant they are created. Like dreams, this correspondence to real experience is not immediately obvious but reveals itself readily in free-associative interpretation. I’ve argued elsewhere that dreaming is the punny, playful-associative “art of memory” operative during sleep; hypnagogia is a waking window onto this same process.
Meditators and yogis have always compared the mind to an ocean, in which thoughts are like waves that trouble the surface. I think the playful, ingenious, autistically inscrutable Solaris ocean is an even better, more nuanced metaphor than any dumb old Earth ocean. The mind is a constant mimetic sea, perpetually generating imaginary representations of everything we encounter and think about and experience; it combines and shapes these ghosts effortlessly into brilliant symbolic tableaux and scenes that brilliantly distill the meaning of “gist” of our experience. Hypnagogia shows us this automatic process, the Solaris mind’s constant metabolism of experience.
We ordinarily don’t discern or detect this continual churning out of image-representations because it is so subtle, so in the background. It is only when the foreground stuff of conscious mental chatter and active thinking is quelled or silenced that it becomes apparent. Meditators interested in the phenomenon can learn to stabilize the edge state on the verge of sleep where these forms can be witnessed and recorded. Hypnagogia can be used to access lucid dreams (the “wake-induced lucid dream” or WILD method described by Stephen LaBerge); and many consider the hypnagogic mind to be uniquely receptive to psychic phenomena. (The most comprehensive book on the topic is the wonderful Hypnagogia, by Andreas Mavromatis—highly recommended.)
But the fact that we mainly detect our preconscious image-building on the edge of sleep should not lead us to believe that it only happens then. This function, an aspect of what Sartre and Lacan both called “the Imaginary,” is a constant process, one that is essential to thinking and the associative bundling of experience so that it can feed our memory mill.
Symbolically metabolizing experience by reducing it to cartoon-dioramas firstly creates mental objects that can be fastened with symbolic labels and manipulated in thought, like toys and action figures we move around in our mental sandbox. They are a basic requirement for thinking. And because they are minimally detailed, these cartoon replicas probably maximize the amount of experience that can be fit into the limited workspace of our working memory: We can only keep 4 or 5 discrete “items” in our heads at one time.
The dioramas of the Imaginary thus facilitate the present situation forming a “chord” with immediate past and future experiences, giving thickness and substantiality to the Now. And by reducing experience to something sketch-like, they likely enable more of that experience to get through the working-memory bottleneck to be stored and transferred to long-term memory later on. The reduced, cartoon-like symbolic representation that can be unpacked at the other end, so to speak, through webs of associative linkages, just like dreams (which, I argue, are long-term memories in the process of formation—see below).
“Every thing fits into its own shape”
The Solaris mind’s incessant brilliant mimesis, as crucial as it is for functioning in the world and enabling us to remember our experiences later, is also to blame for the foremost obstructions of spiritual vision: the arising of the idea of self, and with it the constant fading of presence (that is, “being here now”) that has been the bane of meditators and mystics for millennia.
To free us from having to give all our attention to the present moment, the imagination constantly replaces our naked awareness of the world with sketch-like scenes of “I seeing.” You can experience this yourself: Just take a deep breath, exhale, and focus visually on an object in front of you. Initially there is a silent vivid sense of full presence with the object—the object richly and brightly fills your attention—but after just a few seconds the vividness of the object fades slightly as a faint, subtle mental diorama of “me seeing this” emerges in your awareness to compete with it; you might also notice further layers of imagination, like a background meta-awareness of “being seen seeing” (the constant inner haunting presence that Lacan called “the Gaze”). Naked awareness is thus perpetually obscured in consciousness with new virtual ghost-representations—literally, every few seconds, new puppet-subjects and new gazes form, in a slow but incessant pageant of simulacra that represent the self.
By “self” I don’t just mean the ego or “I” in the diorama. Every object of perception too, by being copied in the imagination, assumes a virtual ghost presence or double. Whenever our eyes fall on an object, this interplay of the ghost-making Solaris mind and the webs of linguistic symbols we map onto those image-representations produce the sense of recognition, a sense of “what it is,” enabling a labeled image-object to be manipulated in thought. This “what it is,” or itself-ness, the fiction of self-identity, is—when we become attached to it or believe in it—the ultimate stumbling block toward spiritual liberation. Belief in the self is the basic error and even absurdity that, for Buddhists, is the fundamental reason for human suffering.
The reason an object’s self-identity is absurd was explained best, I think, by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations:
“A thing is identical with itself.”—There is no finer example of a useless proposition, which yet is connected with a certain play of the imagination. It is as if in imagination we put a thing into its own shape and saw that it fitted. (We might also say: “Every thing fits into itself.” Or again: “Every thing fits into its own shape.” At the same time we look at a thing and imagine that there was a blank left for it, and that now it fits into it exactly.) Does this spot O “fit” into its white surrounding?—But that is just how it would look if there had been a hole in its place and it then fitted into the hole…
So, in short, the Solaris mind takes the alive Heraclitean flux of experience and constantly copies and fossilizes it in cold dead representational dioramas suitable to be thought about and metabolized in memory. The battle of meditative engagement is with this continuous force of autosymbolic imagining (not just the more obvious verbal chatter). The aim is not to obliterate our mental models of ego and self—we need these illusions to function in the world—but to shift the balance: from living completely in the empty, frustrating world of mental representations (images and words) toward abiding for greater stretches of time in the wordless, imageless, blissful Real that lies beyond and outside them.
The Solaris Mind Produces Teachers
During the day, because its imagery is so yoked to the senses, the Solaris mind generates innocuously realistic images that are hard to detect, because they so closely resemble the “shape” of our lived experience and then are immediately washed away by the thoughts that are seeded from them—like ocean waves erasing a picture drawn in the sand. When liberated from thought and sense, however, as on the edge of sleep or in meditation, these images assume their more wildly imaginative genius.
The paradoxical effect of withdrawing from the senses and temporarily quelling the flow of verbal and imaginal thought is that it enables daytime hypnagogic images to assume the vivid otherness of full-on waking dreams. These brief visions, flickering out as quickly as they appear, provide “object lessons” that can enlighten and inspire. Famously, artists like Dali have used them for inspiration. August Kekule’s famous “dream” of a snake biting its tail, which gave him the idea of the benzene ring, was actually a waking reverie, a hypnagogic image. When David Lynch writes of finding his great creative solutions in the period right after dipping into the “unified field” during Transcendental Meditation, hypnagogia is probably what he is referring to.
Buddhist orthodoxy counsels that meditators should ignore these beguiling hypnagogic images (called makyo), but here the ancient and modern masters are quite mistaken, I believe. When properly disciplined and observed with detachment, hypnagogia can be enormously helpful to a personal spiritual path.
One of my first “kenshos” as a beginning Zen meditator many years ago involved a vivid hypnagogic vision of the exact absurdity addressed by Wittgenstein with his notion of a spot fitting into its own shape. After sitting on the sofa meditating for about 15 minutes, I happened to glance down at my coffee mug, and I saw the curved handle not as something for holding the object but as a tube through which circulated the mug’s “self-ness,” flowing out and back into it, like its secret lifeblood.
In a flickering instant, I then grasped that every other object, and even me, would, if we actually had selves, need some kind of tubular circulatory system, like a coffee mug handle, to pump this linguistic fiction out and back in. (I was reminded, among other things, of the surreal scene in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil when the repairman played by Robert DeNiro opens up an apartment HVAC unit and “operates” on the bloody organs inside.) As this absurd idea of the self as an alive vitality inside inert objects vanished, it left in its wake a euphoric clear perception of what the Zen writers call “suchness”—things just as they are without any unnecessary concept like “self” added to them. My ordinary error of believing in things’ inner selfhood seemed delightfully absurd, and I think I grinned rather uncontrollably for a few hours afterward. (This experience, I should add—like countless subsequent ones—was brought on without the use of any substance … well, besides caffeine.)
Catch and Release
In his essay “Negation,” Freud wrote that absence can only reveal itself as the absence of a presence, and a thing has to be asserted before it can be denied. This is possibly one of his keenest insights, with implications well beyond psychotherapy. It is impossible for the mind to represent the non-existence of something; it can only show a thing along with some sign of erasure, such as the thing being destroyed, being taken away, or even being ridiculed or insulted.
In my “coffee mug” example, the Solaris mind was giving me a push. It could not directly represent for me the Zen truth of nothingness or Void or no-self; instead, at the precise moment I needed it, it showed me “self” as a kind of silly cartoon “bodily fluid” and invited me to laugh at the notion.
An active, philosophically engaged meditation practice produces such hypnagogic object-lessons quite frequently, often with the mild euphoria of an “aha” experience, and sometimes much more. In other words, meditation can powerfully open the doors of the brain’s endogenous ‘entheogenic’ capacities.
Because these kinds of insights produced by the Solaris mind are so profound and rewarding, the temptation is always to cling to them—and that is the basis of Buddhist teachers’ distrust. You do need to let them happen but let go of them afterward—”capture and release,” a phrase used by the Zen master Lin-Chi (Rinzai), comes to mind. I have found that hypnagogic object lessons have a brief lifespan of effectiveness anyway: They are rich and energizing and clarifying when they occur, and they can be summoned back as reminders for a day or two at most, but then they become “dead” or lose their charge, like they have only a limited battery life.
Hypnagogic object lessons accessed in meditation or our nightly twilight realm really are very much like the “mimoids” and “symmetriads” and other forms produced on Solaris: emerging out of the ocean, witty, playful, profound, mysterious, and then they break down or dissolve back into it. It is the rule of the oceanic Solaris mind as with anything else: Things arise and then they pass away. And eventually new ones appear, in a neverending cycle.
Living In Orbit
If hypnagogic images are like Solaris’s “mimoids” rising from the seething ocean, hypnagogia’s more solid cousins, dreams, are like the “visitors” that, in Lem’s novel, appear during the night while the scientists on the station are slumbering. The visitors in Solaris are simulacra of people associated with each scientist’s innermost desires or shames, whose company the scientist’s enjoy in an ambivalent, desultory, embarrassed fashion, knowing them to be unreal yet unable to destroy or be rid of them.
The unconscious depths plumbed somehow by the planet mind and then replicated are whitewashed and sanitized in both of the unfortunately boring film adaptations by otherwise great directors (Tarkovsky, Soderberg). In the novel, Kelvin’s dead wife is the least bizarre and embarrassing of the visitors. One of the scientists, Snow, appears to harbor a child in his quarters (and possibly also a monster) that he won’t let anyone else see, and suggests only that it represents some “uncontrollable thought” that he once had and that has now bound itself to him:
“What is a normal man? A man who has never committed a disgraceful act? Maybe, but has he never had uncontrollable thoughts? Perhaps he hasn’t. But perhaps something, a phantasm, rose up from somewhere within him, ten or thirty years ago, something which he suppressed and then forgot about, which he doesn’t fear since he knows he will never allow it to develop and so lead to any action on his part. And now, suddenly, in broad daylight, he comes across this thing…this thought, embodied, riveted to him, indestructible. He wonders where he is…Do you know where he is?”
“Here,” whispered Snow, “on Solaris.”
Is Snow, in his deep unconscious, a child murderer? A pedophile? Brilliantly, Lem leaves this man’s horrible materialized thought ambiguous. Snow goes on to characterize himself as “a man who at one and the same time is ashamed of the object of his desire and cherishes it above everything else, a man who is ready to sacrifice his life for his love, since the feeling he has for it is perhaps just as overwhelming as Romeo’s feeling for Juliet.”
Whatever Snow’s secret desire is, one could not ask for a better literary representation of the Real as described by Lacan: “a thought, embodied, riveted to him, indestructible.” The Real is unrepresentable and unspeakable, and it is associated with the furtive, fatal, inexplicable compulsions “beyond pleasure” that sustain us and on some deep level give meaning to our lives, even though we may have little conscious awareness of them. It is also the deepest secret buried deep in our dreams.
…Soll Ich Werden
Dreams, as I said, are elaborations of the same metabolizing imaginal-symbolic process as hypnagogia, but instead of responding to waking thoughts, they respond to inner, private realities arising in sleep: memories and desires. Psychologists now agree that REM sleep is a period of active memory consolidation, or the distillation of important daytime experiences into gists and integration of that new material into the older substrate of long-term memory.
Because each dreamer’s unique private symbolic language make studying dream content difficult in a laboratory, no scientific psychologist has yet claimed that dreams directly reflect this process. But familiarity with the classical arts of memory—which distort to-be-learned material by exactly the same processes Freud identified for dream thought—reveal that dreams must be precisely the experience of long-term memories being formed. These amazing formations (basically, multilayered polysensory puns and substitutions, organized into bizarre tableaux linked narratively and situated in a distinct spatial environment) render the “day residues” being remembered mostly unrecognizable unless subjected to free-associative unpacking.
The wit and brilliance of this process of dream distortion is so excessive, so beyond our daily experience of our mundane intelligence, that people unused to recording or observing their dreams have difficulty accepting that their own measly minds could be responsible for creating these tableaux. It may even account for why some people don’t remember them at all—they simply don’t fit into who we think we are.
To take a small, simple example, I once helped a friend make sense of a disturbing dream in which she had attended a dinner party thrown by her older sister, where she was horrified to see her sister’s head resting on a food platter, like an hors d’oeuvre. I knew that my friend felt a bit threatened by her sister’s accomplishments, such as her recent purchase of a new home, so the meaning seemed apparent: “It’s about your jealousy that your sister is ahead.” My friend’s jaw dropped, and she quickly expressed shock that her own mind, hardly a punster, would have thought of representing the idea of “ahead” with a human head … or that it would have had the bad, violent taste to create such a macabre image of her sister.
But in fact, everyone’s dreams, as well as their hypnagogic images, are packed full of these witty puns—most of them too brilliant to ever grasp (e.g., polysensory gags). It is no wonder that dreams and other visions have historically been assumed to be messages or thoughts from some other or divine source. It’s not only, as Freud thought, that we can’t believe ourselves capable of the wicked desires our dreams sometimes hint at; it’s also that we can’t believe our own minds are capable of being so astonishingly clever.
Although materialists who reduce our dreams, as well as our other profound visionary experiences, to brain effects seem to deflate our spiritual hopes, they can also be forgiven for trying to return our genius to us—that is, to de-alienate it. Hence Freud’s motto, “Wo es war, soll ich werden” or “Where It was, there I will be.” The least of us contains infinities, and genius, that are really unimaginable, if we only bother to peer into this seething Solaris-like realm and recognize it as belonging to us—or perhaps, realize us as belonging to it.
The latest thing in Quantum physics, it seems, is the “Rashomon Effect”: Observers create reality, so there may be as many realities as there are observers. This relates to what I was getting at in previous posts, riffing on themes in Philip K Dick’s Exegesis: Reality is multiple and shifting. There’s no single “glass football” cosmic history but infinite variations on the theme.
Beyond the reality of multiple observers, the more troubling state of affairs is that even individual observers are “multiple” in several fundamental ways. There is firstly the notion that even on a subatomic level the particles in our bodies are in disgreement as to what is real, because of light’s (and thus causality’s) finite speed limit.
But there is also the simple fact that our information about the world comes via multiple sensory channels and is processed in multiple ways in our brains. The basic fact that we see with two eyes, which gives us our 3-D picture of the world, means that even the two brain hemispheres must be regarded as separate observers of reality, having distinct interpretations and (one might suppose) “collapsing different wave functions.” The plurality of the psyche and the fact that the brain produces multiple separate representations, most notably within separate hemispheres that only imperfectly communicate with each other, produces something like a personal Rashomon Effect.
Our brains juggle multiple realities, quite literally.
Fun With Dick and Jaynes
Dick wrote in his Exegesis that in the months prior to February 1974, when his mystical experience began, he had been taking megadoses of B and C vitamins according to a regimen he had read about in Psychology Today, an experimental treatment for schizophrenics designed to increase communication between the brain hemispheres. There is no way of knowing if this had anything to do with his altered perceptions, hypnagogic voices and imagery, and amazing synchronicities over the ensuing months, but among the sources that eventually gave him insight on his experience were books on the emerging science of brain hemisphericity, including Julian Jaynes’ pathbreaking 1976 work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. When Dick read a Time magazine article about Jaynes’ work in 1977, it seemed almost a perfectly timed answer to some of his most pressing questions, and indeed he felt that the theory confirmed conclusions he had arrived at based on his own experience.
Jaynes’ book merged the then-new understanding of the separate functioning of the two brain hemispheres with the study of ancient cultures. Specifically, Jaynes argued that ancient humans always heard divine voices in their heads because their hemispheres did not intercommunicate to the degree that moderns’ brains do; thus voices from one hemisphere would be heard by the other as coming from outside—interpreted as spirits or gods. In the works of Homer, for instance, there is no evidence of characters possessing what we would call an inner life—they obey the dictates of divine commands.
According to Jaynes’ interpretation, a major shift in consciousness occurred around 1250 BC, enabling the hemispheres to act with greater unity, and since then humans have no longer heard the voice of the divine Other and have felt spiritually alienated and forsaken as a result; but with this alienation, this Fall and expulsion from the Garden, we have earned our autonomy. The sense of loss Dick experienced when the internal presence of the divine faded drove him to attempt suicide in 1976. Thus he had particularly compelling reason to see himself reflected in those ancients who likewise suffered grief at the loss of the divine voice.
The Right Car Door
It might seem like a risky gambit for a Gnostic Christian like Dick to seek insights into transcendent experience in neurobiology, because it readily plays into the hand of the opposition: Granting wholism, meaning, the spirit world, cosmic consciousness, and gnosis to the “equally important” right hemisphere readily reinforces the bigger materialist picture that the divine or the spiritual are a product of brain processes and nothing more.
Jaynes himself was a committed materialist. In his Introduction to his book, he describes that while working on it he himself experienced a hypnagogic voice telling him to “include the knower in the known,” which he took merely as an interesting example of the kinds of voices heard routinely by the ancients; however (as Gary Lachman points out in his excellent book, A Secret History of Consciousness), it never occurred to Jaynes to actually listen to that voice or follow its recommendation.
Dick, however, very creatively found ways of integrating materialist scientific theories with his spiritual intuitions and beliefs, and he converged on his own view of the brain that harmonized the materialist views of Jaynes and other split-brain thinkers with an emerging neo-Platonic Gnostic theology and his five-dimensional view of spacetime.
Critically, our conscious self is alienated from its banished half existing in orthogonal (fifth dimensional) time, roughly equivalent to the Platonic world of forms. To realize our forgotten larger self, an anamnesis (unforgetting) is required, facilitated by the “luminous redeemer”; crucially it is aspects of our neurobiology and neurochemistry that keep us alienated from this perpendicular stream of time and form—among other things, the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. But, Dick felt, humanity is on the verge of the next phase in its evolution, when this brain barrier will give way to a restored bicameral consciousness, called the “Ditheon,” able to perceive the two worlds we live in—the private world and shared world (idios kosmos and koinos kosmos)—simultaneously, or “parallactically.” He felt his own experience anticipated this coming human shift.
Left Brain vs. No Head
Dick would have found a firmer scientific and theoretical basis for his concept of the Ditheon mind in Iain McGilchrist’s monumental 2009 reconsideration of the problem of brain hemisphericity and its relation to culture, The Master and His Emissary.
A mountain of evidence summarized by McGilchrist suggests that the left hemisphere, somewhat true to its stereotyped image, likes to nail down details, in sequential fashion, in an effort to control the world and avoid ambiguity at all costs. It likes to see things as definitive, static, and linear, and will jump to conclusions with unwarranted confidence. Language’s love of pinning labels on things goes along with this, although language is not solely rooted in the left hemisphere, as was once believed. The right hemisphere, in contrast to the left, sees the big picture and focuses more on caring for the world, finding meaning in it, and participating in it. This hemisphere is comfortable with indefiniteness, circularity (including circular notions of time), and inclusivity.
The interesting thing is that although the “wholist” right hemisphere is actually dominant in many respects, it can be lulled into a state of passivity by the frenetic instrumental behavior and extreme confidence of the left. In an argument that echoes but greatly nuances that of Jaynes, McGilchrist shows that the hemispheres’ opposed cognitive styles have tended to shift their balance because of cultural forces and fashions. We are currently, McGilchrist argues, in an extreme leftward swing: Under the parsing, instrumental left hemisphere’s direction, we have created a world of ecological and human exploitation and we have modeled our own society and even our own minds on the machine. Humanity’s present alienation comes from a kind of abdication of the throne, he says, letting the left-brain “emissary” take over while the right-brained “master” sleeps. If we persist on this cultural course, he suggests, we may end up creating a totally despirited social and technological environment that reproduces the kind of definitive mechanistic world the left hemisphere prefers to deal with, as a kind of materialistic self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unlike other neuroscientists interested in these problems, McGilchrist explicitly brackets the controversial question of the brain’s role in consciousness, concentrating instead on the inarguable role of the brain in giving structure to our experience. We live in two worlds, as philosophers have always pointed out, and any attempt to collapse them or subordinate one to the other is doomed to fail. Out of respect and deference for the non-definitive, McGilchrist even refrains from asserting (with a scientist’s usual left-brained force) that the divided nature of our mind is more than metaphorical. It is merely one way of looking at things.
Saying for instance that consciousness is a product of brain processes and nothing more would be a confident, left-hemisphere conclusion, but the left hemisphere isn’t always right and it cannot see the bigger picture. Yet instead subordinating matter to an all-encompassing notion of consciousness or some similar construct, as a host of recent anti-materialist thinkers like Deepak Chopra are doing (often invoking Quantum physics in their defense) may be similarly facile. We have to hold both perspectives—the materialist and the idealist—independently, simultaneously, even though they don’t add up.
McGilchrist goes so far as to concede that whether our two thought styles are really caused by the different functioning of two physical brain hemispheres (i.e., the whole neurophysiological basis for his argument) is ultimately less important than the fact that these cognitive styles exist as distinct, and the fact that they are fundamentally nonsymmetric and noncomplementary. This is what is so crucial and distinctive about his argument: These two worlds, these two alternative ways of perceiving, cannot be reconciled or collapsed into a synthesis; they don’t fit together or harmonize in any way.
In other words, it is not that the left hemisphere of the brain is in opposition to the right hemisphere. It is that the left hemisphere is in opposition to a standpoint that does not reduce things to material causes (such as brains or their hemispheres) at all. The left hemisphere is in opposition to no head.
Zooming in to the Void
The idea that at the core of our apprehension of the world is a nonsymmetrical opposition between two points of view that are utterly irreconcilable is also basic to Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy as the core idea of “parallax.” Various irreconcilable dualities in human knowledge (such as the wave/particle duality in physics or the reductive neuroscientific stance that consciousness is an illusion versus the meaningful world as humans really experience it) and even basic aspects of human experience like the irreconcilable rift between the sexes are reflections/effects of various fundamental divisions or antagonisms in our apprehension of the world, including things’ basic non-identity with themselves.
The latter division arises from the arbitrary and shifting relationship between the phenomenal world as it is digested in the imagination (the Imaginary) and the overlay of words and concepts that gives our mental images meaning (the Symbolic). In our daily consciousness we must pretend these match up harmoniously, that things have selves, but this is really a delusion. (This effect of the linguists’ “arbitrariness of the linguistic sign” is named in Buddhist philosophy as the doctrine of “no-self.”)
The impossibility of merger between the Symbolic and Imaginary becomes clear if you imagine a landscape and, over it, a projected contour or highway map. The belief in self-identity is the belief that the map can be inscribed in the landscape and merged with it. But even if you slapped a label or sign on every object in that landscape, saying “what it is,” would it really affect the is-ness of anything? If you painted the name of a road on the road, or even worked the name into the asphalt using differently colored tar, there would be vast parts of the pavement with no name, and you could crouch or zoom down in to any point in the landscape to a scale smaller than the label and arrive at the same unlabeled nothing.
The fact that a name cannot be merged with a thing is merely amusing when presented in the form of an object lesson like Magritte’s famous “This is not a pipe” painting. But there’s a real trauma in it. This subtle trauma can be experienced on any modern smartphone navigation app such as Google Maps. When you zoom in to a view a neighborhood more closely, the scale of the city blocks themselves enlarge, but the size of icons for landmarks and streets do not, nor do the map’s verbal labels. Zooming in further, you may disconcertingly zoom in so much that you lose all references: The name of a city or neighborhood hovers in a blank blue or gray emptiness, unattached to any image. This unsettling vacuousness, which seems like a glitch or imperfection in the software, is an experience of the Real.
We may attempt to flee or escape the Real through various “unitary” cheats—coming down firmly on either side of the materialism/idealism divide, for example: Being resolutely left-brained is one way to evade existential terror, just as being resolutely right brained is. But precisely according to the truism that a genius is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously, advanced (and actually, ultimately blissful) thinking demands living in the excluded middle rejected by Aristotelian logic.
Theater of the Surd
Žižek emphasizes the parallactic nature of the Real as a counter to what he sees as facile New Age yin/yang images of harmony and complementarity, which strike him nothing better than a version of the naive literalism that conflates words and things. Lacan’s own adoption of the dollar sign, $, as his symbol for the “split subject,” the person decentered and alienated by language, could almost be seen as expressing precisely the same critique: It is as if either yin or yang (it doesn’t matter which one) is being jammed together with something that has been cut along a straight edge rather than an S-shaped curve. There is no complementarity to these halves, and instead there is a zone of inconsistency, illogic, doubling and gaps, and paradox.
This liminal zone where the consistency of the world breaks down, the Real, is exactly the realm of what Dick (borrowing a term from mathematics for irrational numbers) called the “surd” in the most breathtaking late entries in his Exegesis:
When all the metaphysical and theological systems have come and gone there remains this inexplicable surd: a flurry of breath in the weeds in the back alley—a hint of motion and color. Nameless, defying analysis or systematizing: it is here and now, lowly, at the rim of perception and being. Who is it? What is it? I don’t know.
But even though this “place” of breakdown may appear to be part of the world’s landscape, it is really hovering between us and the landscape, as well as behind and within the landscape, like a weird optical illusion or hologram whose distance is impossible to fix.
Writers have generally described the Lacanian Real as whatever lies beyond the scope of human symbolism and imagination—the unnameable and the unrepresentable—but Žižek asks us to think of it as a mirage created by the constant oscillation among irreconcilable perspectives. It doesn’t exist, yet just as Dick says of the surd, it exerts a tug, an influence, on the world, the way the moon tugs at the Earth’s oceans. For Žižek, too, the Real is a pure semblance, a nothing, yet one that pulls on us, like a gravitational field bending our perceptions and our desires. Instead of being beguiled by the mirage, he says, we must penetrate it and attempt to grasp the multiple separate points of view that give rise to it, somehow apprehending them simultaneously.
Between Two Worlds
The mystical is the realm of the Real because it resists the dual pull of names and imagination. The place of mystical apprehension has always been described as precarious and difficult to enter and abide in deliberately—like a razor’s edge—precisely because the mind dislikes instability and uncertainty; it needs images and concepts to pin things down. Nevertheless, building the mental muscle of accepting inconsistency, cognitive dissonance, and even “impossibility” produces the ability to abide in the Real, balance on that razor’s edge, for longer and longer periods of time.
Indeed, although Žižek might be horrified to have his concept linked to Buddhism (which to him is basically ‘New Age obscurantism’), his description of parallax and void in The Parallax View comes close to capturing the actual felt experience of Zen meditation: an uncomfortable-at-first nowhere in which you cannot find your place or rest in secure signification or imagination. It is important to be clear: This discomfort has nothing to do with the physical discomfort of the seated postures emphasized by many contemporary Zen teachers in America—ritualistic painful sitting is not essential for Zen meditation. I’m referring to a mental/emotional discomfort, felt in the torso and whole body, as vague unease or physical dislocation. But this weird sense of placelessness becomes, over time, increasingly pleasurable and enriching, increasingly a home to return to and a source of strength and insight.
I’ve described elsewhere that David Lynch’s world of Twin Peaks, with its curtained spirit world shimmering in and out of view and its ominous sentient breeze rustling the pines, perfectly captures the transfigured sense of the world in the aftermath of meditation. Lynch, through his own daily mantra meditation practice, has been honing and deepening his access to the Real for over four decades, and Žižek (who lacks experience with the wordless) is quite mistaken when he dismisses this side Lynch as soft-headed. Lynch is a rigorous explorer of the Real, apprehending and expressing this zone and its effects in the only way possible. Žižek, for all his brilliance, can only talk around the Real, in endless symptomatic loops of wordy repetition that never get at the thing itself.
Another comparison would be Salvador Dali with his “paranoic-critical” images: landscapes and objects that are haunted by a latent image, an alternative way of perceiving the same landmarks. It is sort of in these terms that I imagine Dick’s experience seeing ancient Rome mapped onto modern Orange County: a kind of flickering imaginal overlay. In being able to see this, as well as detecting the ‘surdity’ (or Real) in the “trash stratum” of mundane existence, Dick felt that he was accessing a new Ditheon consciousness that, by integrating the brain hemispheres, was able to see two realities at once. Dick felt this capacity, which the Native American shamans described as being a “walker between two worlds,” was possibly the next phase in our cognitive evolution.
Possibly we would see Valis as a flicker of on-off, on-off, on-off, a flip-flop back and forth in its ceaseless dialectic that is in it but beneath it … All this is very much like what Heraclitus taught and he would probably have called Valis Logos. [Dick, Exegesis]
Ditheon perception could represent an evolutionary leap forward or a lapse into paranoia and madness—there’s probably a fine line (or heck, an overlap). I do think Dick is describing a capacity that mainstream, left-brained, materialist psychology has been far too hasty to deny the possibility of.
It is almost axiomatic in psychology that our perceptual-cognitive apparatus cannot tolerate contradictions or multiple meanings, and thus when faced with ambiguity, we are compelled to adopt some single stable interpretation, one that is consistent with the rest of our world, rejecting all contradictory data. Consider the classic multistable images we’ve all seen in Psychology 101 textbooks: Perceptual psychologists like to claim we can’t avoid falling into the trap of seeing either a young beautiful wife or a hideous mother-in-law (left), or either a duck or a rabbit (below). Our perception may flip-flop, but it is always stated as fact that we can’t see a duck and a rabbit (or a wife and a mother in law) simultaneously.
The philosopher Wittgenstein noted, however, that it is at least possible to say “It’s a duck-rabbit” and to recognize the image as such; I believe it may also be possible, with difficulty, to see its dual reality. If you hang a duck-rabbit on your wall and stare at it in idle moments for a few weeks, it starts to change. The two aspects themselves morph and distort, and eventually, I find, the flip-flop actually accelerates, becoming more of an anxious flicker; if you try, you can almost, for the briefest instant, see just an ambiguous shape or an unrelated object (for instance, some kind of sinister mutant squid or vegetable). This breakdown of the sense of the image reminds me of what occurs when you repeat a familiar word over and over 50 or 100 times: It temporarily loses its meaning and seems strange.
This “meaningless” apprehension, which would be a kind of peace-making with cognitive dissonance, is exactly the aim of contemplative techniques like Zen: Once you somewhat build the muscle of non-attachment and can resist cognitively rushing in to an involvement (or interpretation) with the seen, things begin to manifest in their “suchness”—that is, just as they are—initially for brief flickering instants or a few seconds; eventually you can abide in this precarious in-between place for longer durations.
Because they pose such a challenge and invitation, I suspect that multistable images like duck-rabbits would be ideal visual koans for intensive meditation. (Some of Magritte’s similarly ambiguous images can also function this way.)
The Real and the Paranormal
Paranormal phenomena belong to this indeterminate, hard-to-see landscape where duck-rabbits frolic and play, because they evade nearly all attempts to pin them with concepts and labels. This quality has been described by some researchers as “tricksterish,” but a future theory of paranormal phenomena could profitably adopt Lacanian language instead. The paranormal is about as “Real” as it gets.
UFOs and related phenomena, because of their maddening ambiguity, make great tools for meditation. I am also beginning to think that the reverse may also be the case: Developing ones parallactic or ‘Ditheon’ mental capacity through engaged meditation and staring at duck-rabbits is possibly the necessary prerequisite for experiencing, and probably making progress understanding, paranormal phenomena.
For example there are scattered, tantalizing hints throughout the UFO literature that they or their associated intelligences might be somehow drawn to persons in meditative states. Examples include Whitley Strieber’s habit of Zen meditation with his visiting grays; the observation by Skinwalker Ranch researchers that meditation might act as bait for the bizarre phenomena they observed; or even the reputed tendency of UFOs to appear near Nikolai Kozyrev’s lab in Siberia when his mirrors were being used to focus mental energy. But it could simply be that UFOs are all around and it is just our ordinary left-brained definitive minds that keep us from seeing them.
It is also no accident that a mystical practice (or “yoga” in the ancient Patanjali sense—which just meant meditation) is widely regarded as a necessary prerequisite to build psi ability. Even outside of an Eastern religious or yogic framework, many writers on ESP have described meditative states as essential, both for getting outside our categorical/definitive/conceptual left brains (what Ingo Swann called “analytical overlay”) and for temporarily setting aside or at least minimizing our petty egos and biases and distort our interpretations of what we see.
Lynch thinks we could create a better, more humane world if everybody meditated. I would add that getting everyone to meditate might create a more paranormal world, too.
Leonard Nimoy was, without a doubt, the most decisive influence on my spiritual life. He provided my first model of the mystical path, when I first started becoming curious about such things as a teenager.
When creating the character of Mister Spock, Nimoy was drawing directly from his childhood experiences of Orthodox Judaism, but I would only learn that much later. (Nimoy described the Jewish roots of Spock in a wonderful interview here.) At the time, when I was curled up in my beanbag chair every afternoon in our family rec room watching Star Trek reruns after school, I connected Spock’s Vulcan mental mastery with Eastern religion—specifically, with a story told by Eugen Herrigel in a little paperback I had bought at the bookstore (or perhaps been given), The Method of Zen.
One day on a trip to Tokyo in the 1920s, Herrigel was having lunch with a Japanese colleague when an earthquake struck. Panic quickly broke out, and most of the diners (including Herrigel) jumped up to hurry out of the restaurant. But the man Herrigel was having lunch with remained seated with his hands folded, his eyes nearly closed, completely undisturbed by the shaking going on around them. Fascinated by his companion’s trance-like calm, Herrigel sat down too and felt strangely safe, almost like the man’s trance put out some kind of force field protecting them. When the earthquake was over, the man continued the conversation exactly where it had broken off, saying nothing about what had just happened.
A few days later, Herrigel learned the source of his lunch partner’s amazing, infectious calm—he was a Zen Buddhist, whose emotional steadiness came from years of practicing meditation. Herrigel was sold. He went on to apprentice himself for four years with a Zen archery master and, from that experience, wrote the classic Zen and the Art of Archery.
Zen literature is full of stories of people achieving great feats of insight, physical skill, and mastery of their base emotions after years of focusing their minds. They often become rocks of support, quietly giving strength to others without being burdened by the ego that obscures and obstructs most people.
This seemed to me exactly like Spock—kind and compassionate, able to mentally connect with other beings (even the most exotic), and with a keen and brilliant mind that was unswayed by human passions, delusions, and fears. When alone, he was often shown sitting, eyes half shut, deep in meditation. To this day, I still see the Zen model as being something like a calm, compassionate alien taking a quiet, protective, healing role in the world of panicked humans.
Connecting Herrigel’s story to Spock made a huge impression on me, at a time when I was very impressionable. My hero, Spock, was clearly a Zen man, and I badly wanted to be one of those too.
I wonder how many other young people mistook Nimoy’s “Jewish” alien as a Zen master, sending them headlong on a rewarding, lifelong embrace of Zen or other Eastern religious paths?
In David Lindsay’s bizarre Gnostic allegory A Voyage to Arcturus, space travel is accomplished by means of “back light”—light rays that strive to return to their origin. A bottle of back light gathered through a telescope aimed at Arcturus is used to pull a small ship and its passengers from an observatory in Scotland up to that distant star system.
If you think about it, “back light” does exist in some sense, and is inseparable from light itself. We are used to hearing how light from a star took X many years to reach our eyes, and thus, when looking at that star, we are seeing into the past. In the case of Arcturus, which is 36.7 light years distant, I see photons that started their journey across space when I was ten years old. This truism that we look into the past when we gaze into space tends to reinforce the dualistic separateness of subject and object … but there is another way of looking at it.
Light is the medium of communication of events and forces, and thus, of causality itself. Einstein grasped that If you tried to run alongside light, it would seem to outpace you by the same amount no matter how fast you were running. But if you were light, everything would be in a state of eternity and immediacy. Really, there are no objects, only relationships defined by interacting electromagnetic quanta, which is not a “communication of information” but, seen from the perspective of higher dimensions, something much more. Light really “goes both ways” or, more correctly, doesn’t go at all. There is nowhere to go, from the point of view of light.
Thus when I see Arcturus there in the sky, we are really united. Those photons that “left” Arcturus nearly four decades ago and are now reaching my eye are, when viewed four- or more-dimensionally, the actual touch of the star and my eye, reaching across purely illusory decades. Within such a perspective, I am potentially in communion with all places and all times. I touch Arcturus at the same time that it touches me. (Moreover, given the Uncertainty Principle, my seeing and registering those photons is actually affecting that star 36.7 years ago, in some tiny subatomic way. In a butterfly-effect universe, ought those tiny subatomic effects of distant observation not add up to substantial effects over the course of cosmic history?)
We may think of ourselves as a human-shaped bodies here where we are in space and nowhere else, but from the point of view of light we are pulled apart in every possible direction, and thus have the shape of the universe. We are dissolved in spacetime. Thus the simple concept of “world lines”—of our present selves as “sections” of a worm moving through a static glass football—is really mistaken, as I argued in my previous post on eternalism. Not only are our “worms” impossibly fuzzy, extending to all points in spacetime, they also shift and shimmer and change depending on your vantage point. There’s no one history but infinite variants depending on one’s point of view.
Time, the fourth dimension, is not fixed, but is subject to the rule of light and thus, I suggest, subject to crucial “traumatic” vagaries arising from the fact that light obeys a fixed speed limit. Yet at the same time, by being the very medium of cosmic causal communion, light offers its own “salvation.” In this dual nature, light, the shaper of Time, is very much like the “blood of Christ” in the Christian imagination.
In his Exegesis (and its fictionalized version, Valis), Philip K. Dick kept returning to the Grail kingdom from Wagner’s opera Parsifal to explain his emerging Gnostic conceptualization of the relationship between Platonic forms and Time, or, between cold crystalline history (the 4-D football of Minkowski or Alan Moore, previous post) and a hyperfootball universe in which salvation is possible.
When the young knight (Parsifal) is brought to the Grail castle, he notices that he is walking but doesn’t seem to move. The chief Knight of the Grail explains that, “Here, my son, time turns into space.” The Grail itself is what Dick calls a “common constituent,” a node of eternity around which history circles and that, as a result, has salvific power—just like the Jesus fish around a young woman’s neck that triggered his mystical experience (or psychotic break, depending on your interpretation). Dick writes in his Exegesis that “This is how … the Eucharist works, how through the sacrament ‘time is overcome’—normal time becomes space … My 5-D realm … is the realm of Kosmos Noetos, hence logos, hence the realm of Christ.”
People have imagined that somehow Wagner anticipated Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and its equivalence of space and time. Indeed, similar objects (like Dick’s common constituents) do have a central place in cosmology, as singularities—places where Time breaks down under the enormous mass/gravitational force of a collapsing star and its subsequent ravenous hunger.
Theoretically there is no history inside the singularity of a black hole, and I think it has also been proposed that there may be no difference between different singularities—the guts of all black holes might all, really, be the same no-place, out of Time and out of Space. Hence the conceptual linkage of black holes to hyperspace, wormholes, and time travel—even the vicinity or edges of such objects could draw together distant regions of space and time and thus provide shortcuts between them. In the wonderful novel Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem, a zone of retarded time near a black hole, which he dubs a “bradychronality,” is used to synchronize the histories of an interstellar mothership and its exploration vessel; a similar plot device is used in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
Wagner’s Grail kingdom, with its bleak repetitive ritual and its grim knights who seem trapped in amber, is like one of Lem’s black-hole bradychronalities. Wagner apparently used elaborate sets and choreography to visually convey this sense of movement-in-immobility. (I have never seen Parsifal performed but I have been near a black hole many times, and frustratingly walking without seeming to move is exactly what it is like.)
Things not unlike Dick’s “common constituents” also have a central place in the Lacanian-Hegelian philosophy of Slavoj Žižek, as what he calls “sublime objects”: inaccessible, simultaneously fascinating and threatening or even horrifying remnants of trauma that rupture the symbolic universe—the universe of meaning—but also anchor it in place, just like the imperious supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies, around which all stars circle in stately obedient procession.
In the vicinity of a sublime object, history gets caught in endless orbital loops of fixation and repetition, thus they form the nuclei of individual fetishes and neurotic symptoms as well as religious rituals and political ideologies. Žižek’s classic example is the remains of the Titanic, which spookily fascinated viewers when the wreck was discovered in the early 1980s. Other examples would be the ruins of the World Trade Center towers after 9/11, or the ruins of Auschwitz/Birkenau; both represent the site of a horrible trauma, yet both are also repeatedly revisited and “enjoyed” in a kind of pathological-obsessive way.
The real tendency of subjective time to slow down during crises and disasters, as well as the Freudian neurotic compulsion to engage in repetitive behavior around our traumas, suggests that the connection between weighty trauma and the gravity that bends spacetime may be more than metaphorical. Milan Kundera keyed in on this with his meditation on lightness and weight in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Things are light and insubstantial if they never repeat or return; only if they repeat are they consequential and serious; cosmology reverses this causal priority of weight and repetition (or spacetime curvature): Only if events are heavy (like a trauma) do they cause things to go in circles or repeat. But indeed, both perspectives are fine, because in the vicinity of such a “heavy” formation, causality breaks down and there is no single temporal dimension, no before and after; the future causes the past as much as the past causes the future.
Sublime objects, the material form taken by the condensed compacted jouissance or “enjoyment” at the heart of personal and collective symptoms, are the same as the sacramental formations (common constituents) that give structure to Dick’s orthogonal time. Dick suggests it is not simply that forms repeat and exist in some kind of spacetime resonance with each other (as in Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields); it is that the Jesus fish around the neck of a young woman in Orange County, CA in February 1974 is really in some sense the same Jesus fish as one worn by a secret Gnostic Christian in first century Syria.
For most of the medieval and later writers who penned romances about knights seeking the Holy Grail, that object is precisely such a sublime, “out of time and sense” object, specifically because it implicitly holds Christ’s saving blood—the remnant or leftover of a primal trauma, which is also the only thing that (according to medieval Christianity) can save us. In fact, throughout his prolific career, Žižek, like Dick, has also continually used Wagner’s Parsifal to illustrate his theory. In the Grail King Anfortas’s realm, history has slowed to halt, circling repeatedly in the warped spacetime of obsessive pleasurable-painful jouissance, symbolized by the chronically festering wound on his thigh, which can only be cured by the spear that caused it—the spear that impaled Christ as he hung on the cross and is now possessed by Anfortas’s enemy, the evil wizard Klingsor.
The Flickering Grail
The central Christian “saving trauma” is of course Christ’s martyrdom in Jerusalem. The genius of the early Grail writers was to more clearly draw out the connection, only latent in the canonical Gospels, between Jesus’s blood ingested by his disciples at the Last Supper and the blood Christ shed on the Cross a couple days later. The romances “flicker” about which object this cup is: the cup the disciples drank from, which became symbolically the Eucharist cup in the Mass, or the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ’s blood after his crucifixion, when his body was lowered from the cross. The latter scene, the “Deposition,” does not appear in the canonical Gospels but in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which was popular at the time.
I think we can really see the Grail as both objects simultaneously, and that its atemporal “absurdity” is essential to the salvific nature of Christ’s blood: How could the blood shed on the Cross have gotten into the cup of the Last Supper other than by having traveled back in time? Christ’s blood is either made of tachyons (hypothetical faster-than-light particles that most physicists currently reject) or is, in effect, outside of linear Time altogether. Only if Christ’s blood is outside of Time and Cause does it make sense that the cup that once ever held it must have always held it and will keep holding it eternally—and there is just one thing known to physics that has those properties: The blood of Christ is, in effect, light.
We see then that, from a Gnostic point of view, Christ’s passion isn’t about anybody called Christ. It is about light and matter and space and time—in other words, causality itself, the very “order of things.” From the fifth-dimensional viewpoint of Dick and Wagner, Christ’s Passion on the cross is kind of solidified, four-dimensional hieroglyph of nothing other than Einstein’s theory of Relativity. Light, like Christ’s saving blood or the Grail that holds it, is unattainable, always at the same distance from us (as long as we are in our fallen, darkened state), yet it is also the very medium of cosmic communion that can save us. (It is no accident, I think, that Lacan also described the Real, the home of enjoyment, as something that is always the same distance from us despite whatever efforts we make to approach or get distance from it: It’s always, he said, “glued to our heel.”)
Why is light a “trauma” for causality? Because of its fixed speed limit. Einstein’s famous “train-car” thought experiments must describe the state of affairs on even a subatomic scale: Electromagnetic radiation emitted from a given source at a given time reaches different “receiving” particles at slightly different times, meaning that causality itself is “warped” at the most fundamental level. One particle must have a different “story” of reality than the story told by a neighboring particle. This is why the luminiferous fuzz of our world-worms is in a constantly flickering either/or or both/and state; by extension the whole universe is multiple, shimmering, contradictory, and radically indeterminate or open-ended.
It is tempting to see the two thieves crucified along with Christ (described in Luke as well as some of the noncanonical gospels)—one who repents and follows the savior to heaven, and one who does not repent and goes to hell—as a figuration of light’s parallactic nature: That it separates, divides reality from itself, as much as it, on another level, unifies.
The Virtuality of Time and Space
Kant saw Time and Space as embedded structures in our brains, not as actual realities, and this helped pave the way for science to question the objective solidity and stability of the material world. As the Buddhists have always said, “nothing exists”—there is no stable self, no objective world of events. Žižek would agree, saying that Time itself (or history) is a perspective mistake, something purely virtual and nonexistent. There is only a structure of meaning which always changes “in retrospect”—which really just means, changes depending on your point of view.
Žižek’s name for what Buddhists call “no self” is parallax. We literally see from two slightly different places, as well as always interpreting the world within rival incommensurable symbolic frameworks. For Žižek, though, the sense of stable reality is not something undercut by parallax, but actually created by it. The Real is an “optical illusion” created by a constant alternation between slightly divergent vantage points.
Recent neuropsychological research has revealed how parallax may work to create the illusion of Time: The sense of the now as having a duration arises from a resonance between slightly temporally offset “functional moments”; the resulting mini-Now or “experienced moment” (lasting 2-3 seconds) along with the slightly longer-duration function of working memory is what enables us to understand language and experience music, for example: building up “chords” of meaning from sequential sounds, perceptions, and thoughts that the brain binds together and unifies into a coherent whole. The ongoing juxtaposition of temporally offset experiences creates the illusion of Time as a dimension having its own volume or extension.
Examining mental activity in meditation reveals that the illusion of self or self-identity arises from a similar process, the constant automatic generation of imaginary representations of our experience—the “autosymbolization” function of the ongoing hypnagogia usually operative just underneath conscious awareness. These images spun off from successive moments of perception (also about every 2-3 seconds) hover over reality like ghosts, an imaginary “I” seeing as well an imaginary gaze seeing me seeing, etc., as well as forming the nuclei or seeds for trains of thoughts. These virtual representations give a Parmenidean sense of permanence and persistence (or at least, viscosity) to the Heraclitean river.
It seems like something analogous could be operative on even the “informational” (really, communal) Quantum world of matter, where the “flicker” or juxtaposition of subtly different realities (think Christ’s two thieves traveling in different directions) might generate what we interpret as the world’s material solidity. Remember that, optically, shifting among multiple points of view is what gives the world its apparent dimensionality—the 2-dimensional visual field (image) becomes 3 dimensional (volume) under parallax. By extension, the 3 dimensions of volume may (under “hyperparallax”) become 4 dimensional—not as Time, but as mass.
Mass could in other words be a “special effect” or illusion arising from objects’ noncoincidence with themselves on a fundamental material level, due to the fact that light (and thus causality) is a Constant with a speed limit. Perhaps mass could be thought of as the provisional “agreement” arrived at by all those confused/disputing subatomic particles who, like Einstein’s train passengers, see the world slightly differently depending on exactly how far along the track they are.
According to General Relativity, mass curves Space, and this curvature gives rise to Time. But it seems we could also think of mass as the “flip side” of Time (or of the Bergsonian “duration” and Heraclitean flux that we interpret as Time): Duration, transitoriness, and change arise, with mass, as a way for particles to resolve their “cognitive dissonance” over relativistic absurdities.
If that is the case, the “fourth dimension” would really be a kind of circular (you might say “ouroboric”) return from 3 dimensions back to 2, and thus our ordinary “fallen” sublight world would exist in a fractional dimensionality somewhere between 2 and 3. This would correspond well to Gerard ‘t Hooft’s holographic theory (which I discussed in my post on anamorphosis), which posits a flat, 2-dimensional spacetime at high energies as the baseline state from which the third dimension is an atypical, illusory—you might say “fallen”—condition.
The Fall of Spirit into Matter
The quanta carrying causal information exist out of time and space in some sense because they are time and space. The apparent space between them, the Void, may really be an illusion. The causal openness (or contingency) of the world, the very fact that things depend or differ and thus that history is not fixed (as in a glass football), is experienced as the spread-outness of the universe in both Space and Time. You might say that the inconceivable scale of the universe reflects the mindboggling or even frightening degree of its causal open-endedness, the degree to which “it depends” or, as Kundera put it, “It could just as easily be otherwise.”
In the same way, enjoyment, the “only substance” acknowledged by Lacan’s radically anti-materialistic version of psychoanalysis, is atemporal and acausal, and it is experienced as painful or pleasurable depending on whether it is represented and conceptualized—that is, pinned to symbols—or not. This is analogous to how particles’ position or velocity become real only when observed/measured, otherwise existing as waves, functions of pure probability and possibility.
The Cross itself helps us understand this. What had been an ancient pre-Christian symbol of matter was “conveniently” adopted by history (or at least, the Gospel-writers) as the mode of Christ’s execution, and it has since become something like our ur-symbol of symbolism itself. Besides painfully fastening the Son of God to matter, the Crucifixion thus depicts the basic process whereby, as Žižek put it, “the subject is fastened, pinned to a signifier that will represent him for the Other” and, more basically, the suffering that arises from fixing the volatile flux of experience with symbols, words, and concepts.
In medieval Christian folklore, the Cross was as atemporal/acausal as the blood spilling from Christ’s wounds: It was said to be hewn from the wood from the Garden of Eden, and paintings always showed the skull of Adam at its base. The fragments of the “True Cross” that circulated as priceless relics in the Middle Ages were spiritually potent (and economically valuable) sublime objects. In a sense, Christ has always been nailed to the One True Cross he was nailed to, as a kind of endlessly circular/tautological (and thereby Real) emblem of what Gnostics called the “fall of spirit into matter.”
The blood that spilled and still spills from Christ as a result of this fixation both to matter and symbolism (which may be the same thing) is really pure enjoyment, and it may be both the cause of our suffering and our salvation depending on whether or not we embrace it—that is, whether we are the “good thief” asking to be remembered by Christ (and thus being saved) or are the unrepentant “bad thief” unwilling to give up our concepts and thus bound for eternal suffering. As any Buddhist would explain, “no self” is excruciating trauma from the standpoint of our clung-to symbolic/conceptual ego-worlds (i.e., “the unbearable lightness of being”), but it is bliss when our symbols are given up within the Real of meditation or nondual mystical experience.
Enjoyment Versus Consciousness
The Grail has always been the symbol of this interconversion not only of Time into Space (as Wagner and Dick understood) but, firstly of Enjoyment into Time. After all, what is the Grail/Eucharist Cup but the vessel that changes wine into Christ’s blood—symbolically expressing the changing of mundane convivial enjoyment (as at a dinner party) into the very traumatic/saving stuff of salvation and history? Because time flows in both directions or simply doesn’t exist in the vicinity of the Real, the opposite conversion is also possible.
You could also say that linear non-reversing Time is tantamount to lost or displaced (past/future) enjoyment. The curvature or distortion of Kantian categories (Space and Time) generates enjoyment, which we displace and symbolically domesticate as a linear causal progression and log/accession in our memorial brains as “history.” But when we give in to enjoyment (be the good thief), we may literally step outside of history and commune with the past and future.
Although Žižek steers way clear of linking his (or Lacan’s) theoretical framework to mysticism or Gnosticism (which he dismisses as ‘New Age obscurantism’), his theory of symptoms very nearly corresponds to Dick’s theory of orthogonal (or fifth-dimensional) Time: A symptom is an eddy in the spacetime continuum, a vortex or whirlpool in which the patient’s enjoyment is trapped and cannot move forward until interpretation releases it. That interpretation, the enunciation of the meaning that gave rise to the symptom in the first place, is like the spear that pierced Christ’s side and that gave rise to Anfortas’s wound; it is the object that caused it and will heal it too, according to a kind of time-loop paradox. Thus the cure of the symptom (the best “salvation” that can be hoped for in psychoanalysis) is a substance, like light or enjoyment or Christ’s blood, that is outside of history’s temporal flow.
Symptoms, these enjoyment traps, are “caused by the future” in the sense that reordering the symbolic world to give them meaning (and hopefully dissolve them) actually transforms the past, un-does their traumatic cause, because the only place history is encoded or persists is in the ever-changing order of symbols and meanings. There is no “objective” history outside of the constantly shifting order of symbols, and there are real places where this order dissolves and breaks down. The only thing that is really permanent is enjoyment itself, which exists in these singularities of the Real, outside the bounds of the known.
If we take that idea literally and seriously, it potentially offers a rich theory not only of mysticism but also of synchronicity, paranormal phenomena, and the relationship between mind and causality. I would suggest that the enjoyment Žižek’s sublime objects and Dick’s common constituents are made of is precisely the “nonlocal” field or substance sought by theorists of ESP, for example, as well as countless writers lately seeking to replace modern reductive materialism with some better theory that privileges Mind or consciousness.
If Time and enjoyment are interconvertible, then enjoyment, not the vague catch-all “consciousness,” may be real ground or substrate of being, and the missing link in current attempts to reconcile mind and material causality. Or, enjoyment might be understood as a kind of purified, rarified consciousness—the quintessence of consciousness—which would correspond to countless mystics’ descriptions of the ocean of nondual bliss-awareness awaiting us in deep meditative states. (I’ll return to this subject in future posts.)
There are rumblings from the Internet that graphic novelist and magus Alan Moore is soon to drop a million-word novel on the world, called Jerusalem. It shows great courage and faith, in a world that no longer reads books, that Moore has stretched out his text as much as possible instead of compressing his ideas to the size of a tweet, which is the direction most people are going in. It sounds interesting. In an interview in Aeon magazine, Moore dazzles the interviewer Tim Martin with the novel’s central theme, eternalism:
In essence, eternalism proposes that space-time forms a block—‘imagine it as a big glass football’, Moore suggests—where past and future are endlessly, immutably fixed, and where human lives are ‘like tiny filaments, embedded in that gigantic vast egg’. He gestures around him at the rubbish-strewn path, his patriarch’s beard waving in the wind. ‘What it’s saying is, everything is eternal,’ he tells me. ‘Every person, every dog turd, every flattened beer can—there’s usually some hypodermics and condoms and a couple of ripped-open handbags along here as well—nothing is lost. No person, no speck or molecule is lost. No event. It’s all there for ever. And if everywhere is eternal, then even the most benighted slum neighbourhood is the eternal city, isn’t it? William Blake’s eternal fourfold city. All of these damned and deprived areas, they are Jerusalem, and everybody in them is an eternal being, worthy of respect.’
The notion is that, if we could step outside of our puny three-dimensional Now and see all of cosmic history at once, we could see how every particle in the cosmos has a world line extending from one end to the other, dividing and interweaving and then recombining. We can imagine sliding back and forth along our own world line into the past and future, like scrubbing the cursor back and forth in a video-editing timeline, because everything from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch (the two tips of Moore’s football) is permanent.
But is permanence the only reason something is worthy of respect? Is a slum the same as Jerusalem only if it persists eternally? This was Nietzsche’s idea with his notion of Eternal Recurrence: Things matter, assume some kind of ontological substantiality, if they repeat endlessly. Nietzsche’s thought experiment was also the theme of Milan Kundera’s great novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being: If there is no repetition or permanence, life is like a sketch that is never filled in. Impermanence is a notion that can drive some to despair; some would say that if they only happen once, then they might as well not have happened at all (which is why Kundera described it as “unbearable”).
I don’t agree. I like Alan Moore a lot, but whenever I read anything by him (even an interview), I get the weird sense I’m in the presence of a hoarder. (Am I the only one who has this feeling?) While the concept of eternalism is appealing on one level, I think it’s also a very cramped, claustrophobic model of time and ethics that actually precludes anything truly interesting from happening in the universe—including phenomena that Alan Moore fans themselves enjoy, such as synchronicities and magic. It also doesn’t really leave any breathing room for consciousness or free will.
I’d suggest that spacetime is much weirder and more interesting than a football, and that respect for every stray beer can and syringe—not to mention every person or animal—is perfectly possible even if they don’t last.
Trapped in Amber
A solid glass-block universe, which was originally formulated by Einstein’s teacher Minkowski in 1908, is one in which the crude truism about the impossibility of killing your own grandfather—or, more subtly, altering the course of a single particle in a butterfly-effect universe—holds sway. In such a universe, linear causality is ironclad, and thus it is implicitly materialistic and deterministic.
It is some vague notion of the glass football, where everything is eternally preserved like flies in amber, that prevents materialist hard-liners from ever accepting the possibilities suggested by various paranormal phenomena like precognition, which necessitate that information can in some form travel from the future into the past and affect the unfolding of events. Such experiences, even if they are seldom actually useful, are too numerous in our lives and too well-attested even in scientific research to deny. (Having lately taken the ‘J.W. Dunne challenge’ and systematically scrutinized my own dream life for fine-grained evidence of precognition—and not only memory encoding—I am now even more persuaded that our relationship to time is way more complicated than our commonsense models of causality admit.)
The multiverse theory that physics increasingly allows as a loophole in these rules isn’t very satisfying: Instead of an actual alteration of history, any deviation from the glass football just spawns a new, different glass football. If you go back or make some alteration in the crystalline spacetime structure, you are actually giving birth to a new universe with an altered history, not affecting the original one. If you go back and time and kill your Grandfather, in other words, it does not produce a paradox because you have actually killed an alternate-universe Grandfather and not the one from your origin universe; likewise, information from the future in a precognitive dream would actually be information from a different future, and thus highly suspect.
But the main problem is, the four-D glass football does not include the knower in the known—who’s the guy holding the football? Where is he? When is he? In a glass football universe, the consciousness of anyone venturing back along the timestream to collect or recollect one of those beer cans (along with everyone else’s consciousness and indeed every material configuration, the position of every particle) would itself “travel” back in time, making the whole notion of travel meaningless—merely an idea in somebody’s head at a particular point in time, a pure fiction or metaphor with no basis in reality. The very idea of the glass football becomes meaningless if there is a single temporal dimension, because there is no external vantage point from which to even verify its truth or falsity.
Eddies in the Space-Time Continuum
“Time is a sphere, and I have been reincarnated in the same time at which I exist!” —Bachman, Silicon Valley
Many physicists would now say that there are more dimensions than the ones we’re aware of. Even if space itself isn’t as voluptuous as we may think (as I suggested in my post on anamorphosis), there may be more than one temporal dimension. If there is even just a second dimension of time, then the glass football suddenly becomes a hyperfootball, and all bets are off.
A hyperfootball is much more interesting than a football, any day of the week, even on Sunday. First of all, history may spiral back and intersect and interpenetrate itself in all kinds of ways that are impossible to visually represent. If there are three temporal dimensions, history could even have volume. A looping, thick, or even turbulent historical/causal stream would produce some very strange effects and phenomena, things appearing to defy our expectations of causality. A “tesseract” such as that depicted in the movie Interstellar is just one possible way of imagining the possibilities.
There could be Douglas Adams’ famous “eddies in the space-time continuum.” Event-streams could move at an angle to ours, intersecting obliquely or perpendicularly, semi-overlapping. History could even become “frothy” if the temporal flow becomes turbulent rather than laminar. In the folds or froth, where our limited sensory apparatus detects multiple converging time streams, we might encounter “flickers,” glitches in the matrix, synchronicities, and multistable phenomena—either/or or both/and structures, about which no two witnesses would agree. Sound familiar? People could reincarnate into the past, or even into the present (like Silicon Valley’s Bachman).
We might even experience a sense of living in two times at once.
The latter was precisely the experience Philip K Dick had in the mid-1970s and that forms the basis for his 900+ page Exegesis, surely now the touchstone (or capstone) text for any sci-fi Gnostic cosmology. After seeing a gleaming Jesus fish around the neck of a young woman delivering pain medication to his house after a tooth extraction, he began to download information ranging from the factual (such as an undiagnosed but potentially fatal birth defect in his son) to the cosmological (such as insights into the spiral structure of time and reality). Historical configurations or events repeated, albeit with an altered appearance: Specifically, the writer became certain that the America of gas shortages and the fall of Nixon was a replay of apostolic Rome, and that Gnostic Christians were once again circulating in secret, communicating with covert symbols (i.e., the fish), and awaiting the redeemer.
To explain this overlapping or confluence of eras, Dick attempted to think four-dimensionally about space and time, much in the vein of Moore’s eternalism, invoking Minkowski’s solid-block spacetime, but quickly he realized that four dimensions are not enough to contain the universe as he experienced it. At least five are needed. It is precisely this fifth dimension, perpendicular to the fourth, that contains the redemptive potential of the universe. But in doing so, I argue, it implicitly calls into question the permanence of every stray condom and syringe in the gutter of Moore’s Jerusalem.
The Fifth Dimension
From the standpoint of the fifth dimension, the fourth (linear time) becomes just an additional spatial dimension, perpendicular to the other three—precisely as Einstein said—but the fifth becomes a Platonic dimension of meaning or form. Early in his voluminous musings, Dick compares history to a kind of printer or typewriter (implicitly the then-popular IBM Selectric, as one of the editors notes), with this orthogonal dimension a rotating ball or a print head sliding back and forth printing out Platonic forms on the unfolding paper of history. In a much earlier era, the metaphor might have been one of warp and weft, with history as the tapestry that results from this interplay of Time and (eternal) Form—enabling a tapestry to actually show a picture, not just be rainbow-like rows of meaningless color.
Although Dick toys with a million different theories and riffs on his core neo-Platonic cosmology in various ways across the eight-year span of the Exegesis, he eventually seems to converge on an even stranger view: that basically, there is no single history, and that certain objects or configurations—what he calls “common constituents”—do not recur so much as never alter, and thus become foci of an eternal present persisting amid change. At least, that’s how I interpret some of the late entries in his notebook. In early 1982, shortly before his death, he wrote:
In this fifth dimension time, things are ‘now’ if they possess a common constituent; viz: ‘now’ signifies any and all of our fourth dimensional worlds where such a common constituent … is; … in a five dimensional world, that golden fish sign was in USA 1974 and Syria A.D. 70 simultaneously.
In other words, “common constituents,” the way Platonic ideal forms manifest in the physical world and history, give a secret structure to Time as points where the forward movement breaks down and becomes an eternal present. They are islands of permanence in a temporal river that slows down or develops eddies in their vicinity, almost like a viscous Heraclitean river with Parmenides (or perhaps several Parmenides, plural) standing defiantly out in the middle of it.
In Dick’s five-dimensional world, there would be no uniform time stream, but a gradation. Things would be shimmering and contradictory and fleeting at the periphery, but things would get more permanent the closer you get to the sublime common constituents—the zone of what might be called “grace.” Indeed isn’t there a similar tension in mainstream Christian doctrine? At the end of time, the important stuff—namely, people, or perhaps some broadened conception of humanity—is resurrected, brought back from oblivion, but the bad stuff that happened (sin) is washed away or redefined, implying a sort of cleansing of Jerusalem’s gutters.
Nostalgia for the Impossible
Events from the future do appear in my dreams, but Jerusalem has not manifested itself on my dream bookshelf, so my musings here can hardly or fairly stand as a review of that book or Moore’s ideas. But the glass football of eternalism strikes me as fundamentally a claustrophobic, hoarder’s universe, in which the price of keeping every speck or molecule is a lack of freedom to move or to breathe. The universe strikes me as being far more weird, contradictory, and incomplete than that.
If history isn’t purely linear, then the future can affect the past—or the eternal lockstep march of time may be entirely an illusion, as indeed Einstein’s relativity theory sort of predicts: History is not exactly the same from any two points in space, even on the subatomic level. If that’s the case, there’s no single configuration of anything; history is a swirling, shimmering, flickering mess of contradictions and folds, where possibilities including stray beer cans or dog turds either are or aren’t depending on where you stand in relation to them. More importantly, determinism isn’t, well, deterministic; there’s space for free will, as well as space for consciousness that isn’t a pure fiction or emergent property of molecular-cellular interactions.
The five-or-more-dimensional universe where history shifts and shimmers—the universe of the impossible—is radically susceptible to alteration and change, and to gnosis. It includes a space for the knower.
Think about it: Which is more important to you, your freedom or the ability to go back and recover every lost beer can? While it’s a nice idea to want to commemorate everything and to think it’s all still there somewhere, somehow, it’s only impermanence that opens a space not only for free will and consciousness but also (I would suggest) true compassion. Without the shimmering space between the is and the was and the might have been, the universe would be claustrophobic and hyper-determined.
Impermanence (or more radically, impossibility) can indeed be physically painful to accept. It can feel unbearable … but so can stubbing your toe—for the first few seconds. But it’s not really unbearable. Once you push through the discomfort, it can also make things beautiful in a new way. In Zen-steeped Japan they have a term, mono no aware, for a sort of “nostalgia in the moment,” an elegaic mood that savors the passing away of things even as they are happening. I don’t know if there’s a word for a kind of nostalgia for things that don’t exist at all, a nostalgia for the impossible, but there should be one of those too.
I think it’s shortsighted to require permanence and eternity in order to respect everything that happens and passes away. It makes our respect (or compassion) that much more noble, I think, if it and its objects are ultimately unrecorded and unrewarded, and maybe even unreal. We respect them anyway. That’s our superpower as humans.
Away in front of them a huge white dome that bulged against the sky cracked down in the middle, split, and slowly folded itself down into the ground. …
Beneath it lay uncovered a huge starship, one hundred and fifty metres long, shaped like a sleek running shoe, perfectly white and mindboggingly beautiful. At the heart of it, unseen, lay a small gold box which carried within it the most brain-wrenching device ever conceived, a device which made this starship unique in the history of the galaxy, a device after which the ship had been named—The Heart of Gold.
“Wow”, said Zaphod Beeblebrox to the Heart of Gold. There wasn’t much else he could say…
More and more reports are emerging about advances in cloaking technology. Since Star Trek we’ve all been familiar with the concept of camouflaging objects in space; last week there was news about, of all things, “time cloaking,” although the principle was evidently first demonstrated at MIT a few years ago. A time cloak causes photons to halt before an event and then continue on their way afterward, like cars stopping for a pedestrian at a crosswalk, effectively (and mind-blowingly) making it as though the event/pedestrian never happened.
These advances are coinciding with an interest in “cloaked UFOs,” and it might be worth asking if there could be a connection between cloaking and the famed mysteries of UFO propulsion. So here’s another in my series of what might be called “unthinking antigravity”—attempts to escape the usual conceptual boxes of ufology: What if cloaking is not just a defensive camouflage mechanism but is actually an intrinsic part of how UFOs (and someday, our own space-and-time vessels) get around?
Douglas Adams’ “Heart of Gold” (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) provides a possible clue to the quantum mechanical reasons why an advanced hyperdrive might actually be tantamount to a cloaking device.
“…the most brain-wrenching device ever conceived”
The Heart of Gold is powered, Adams writes, by improbability itself:
The Infinite Improbability Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing interstellar distances in a few seconds; without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. As the Improbability Drive reaches infinite improbability, it passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously. In other words, you’re never sure where you’ll end up or even what species you’ll be when you get there. It’s therefore important to dress accordingly.
The question becomes: How do you reach such a state of improbability? Obviously, the same way Schrödinger’s cat does: by hiding in a box. Adams never reveals the brain-wrenching secret hidden at the heart of the Heart of Gold, but it must be a cloaking device.
According to the “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum mechanics (or at least some interpretations of the Interpretation), the collapse of a particle’s wave (probability) function requires that there be an observer to measure (localize) it. In plainer terms: A state of affairs needs to be seen by someone in order to become real or actual. As long as waves/particles (or by extension, all the particles making up a starship) can’t be seen and measured, they theoretically remain in an indeterminate state, all possibilities (and all possible locations in spacetime) at once.
What if UFOs somehow expand their “spacetime potentiality” by shielding themselves from observation and measurement, using a powerful cloaking device, effectively turning themselves into Schrödinger’s cat?
This idea occurred to me in a completely unrelated context, psychic healing. In his excellent book Limitless Mind, former SRI remote-viewing researcher and laser physicist Russell Targ hypothesizes that psychic healing may have greater effectiveness prior to a firm diagnosis. For instance, taking a picture of a cancer using an MRI might “lock in” a state of affairs in the body that had previously remained in the more psychically tractable realm of uncertainty. The diagnosis essentially “collapses its wave function” and adds to the disease’s resistance to psychic or non science-based therapies.
That sensation you just experienced was the telepathic awareness of a million materialist physicians crying out in shock and rage at the implications of Targ’s suggestion. I’m not sure what I think of this idea when it comes to approaching health and illness, but the notion seems like it could make good sense of UFO locomotion: A fully cloaked vessel could exist temporarily as a vast wave function in some nonlocal, indeterminate, probabilistic (or possibilistic) state of uncertainty from which it is therefore possible to reemerge anywhere, anywhen, and in any form—just like Zaphod Beeblebrox’s mindbogglingly beautiful spaceship.
There’s an important entailment of this hypothesis that could make sense of some peculiarities of the UFO phenomenon: While a vessel in transit would temporarily exist as an unmeasured and unmeasurable fan of possibilities, it would actually require an external observer to be able to materialize (or become actual) at its destination. In other words, the observer/witness could be an intrinsic part of UFO travel, not an accident.
Could this be why so many UFO sightings seem to be almost staged? Could this account for all the bright lights? Might a witness or bystander actually be essential for a UFO to “land” in our reality?
Uncertainty: UFO and ESP Fuel
Famously, the head of Lockheed’s Skunk Works is reported to have hinted that UFO propulsion is based on ESP principles. Nonlocality (the interconnection of everything) has been the assumed interpretation of that statement, but according to the hypothesis I’m suggesting, it might really be uncertainty—since uncertainty is the state a shy cat or fully cloaked starship would be in quantum-mechanically. (With all due respect to Adams, we’d probably need to rename his invention an “infinite uncertainty drive.”)
Uncertainty happens also to be intrinsic to psychic phenomena, and it is a constant frustration for those who would seek to pin these phenomena down and study them scientifically. Uri Geller was a prime example of this. As Jonathan Margolis shows in his excellent biography, Geller perpetually convinced people, including most of the scientists who ever actually worked with him, that there was a genuine core to his abilities; yet he perpetually frustrated these professionals by being so committed to what they saw as shallow showmanship—and often his most amazing feats proved recalcitrant to actual recording or measurement. His signature trick of spoon-bending, for instance, was never filmed when he wasn’t touching the spoon, even though witnesses consistently reported the latter feat when cameras weren’t running.
To be fair, Geller himself was always a bit uncomfortable claiming those powers as his own; they seemed to happen around and through him, and there was always something “tricksterish” about it. Either Geller himself instinctively knew, or the powers working through him knew, that measurement was the enemy. I’m persuaded his “powers” were not a fraud, as James Randi has made his career claiming, but they did only function within an atmosphere of unpredictability and uncertainty—or they even fed on it—and Geller was not above using standard stage-magic legerdemain to help preserve that (a common phenomenon known as “mixed mediumship”).
According to Margolis, Geller has actually always been drawn to those who doubt him, and this is true of other magic men throughout history: They have always functioned and even thrived within an aura of uncertainty, and often even entered into their profession via determined skepticism. Many shamans, for example, begin their careers as debunkers; they then learn not only the “tricks” of the trade, but also the genuine paranormal power cloaked and even protected by that trickery. Because uncertainty is intrinsic to the shaman’s power, there will always be James Randis throwing skeptical stones. The Gellers need the Randis as much as the Randis need the Gellers. It’s the Trickster logic of anything that draws from uncertainty’s well.
Including the Unknower in the Unknown
But the poetic cliche that science kills the world of magic is also precisely right: Science may be an encroachment on this other “quantum” form of prediction and control, and while interdependent in one sense, they are also inherently incompatible. I say “forms of prediction and control” and not “ways of knowing” because shamanic magic (to put a label on it) is really a path that depends upon strategic unknowing.
Suggestive clues are many here, and include the well-known power of nonconceptual and wordless thinking advocated by mystics and meditators, the hermetic value placed on silence and secrecy, and the observation by modern shamans (e.g., remote viewers) that “things that have been hidden shine like beacons in psychic space,” as star SRI psychic Pat Price put it. What is lost in the inability to know a thing with certainty is a gain when it comes to visualizing a thing in the fuzzy realm of the uncertain-but-probable.
The reverse ought also to be true. If I were Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff in the 1970s at SRI, I would like to have performed the following experiment: Ask Price or Ingo Swann to remote view the fate of photons in a double-slit experiment. My hypothesis: They would not see the outcome (i.e., the famed collapse of the wave function), but instead would see a gray indeterminacy or a multistable flicker of possibilities, like a visual duck/rabbit … because clairvoyance is not the kind of observation uncertain waves/particles are looking for in order to land in the actual. (That’s just a hunch.)
In any case, if we were to formulate a theoretical principle here, it would be something like this: That “the paranormal” encompasses phenomena that for one reason or another, intentionally or accidentally, are recalcitrant to measurement/observation, and this observation-resistance either gives them their power or is involved in their power, on the model of quantum decoherence and the collapse of the wave function.
Whether or not there are really such things as “cloaked UFOs” isn’t really the point: They are a useful imaginary tool for probing the boundaries of thought, and the meaning of occult. That vexingly polyvalent term, which simply means “hidden,” is on one hand just a bookstore label that unifies diverse uncertain and tricksterish topics under its uneasy umbrella. With all those topics, there’s an ambiguity as to whether the thing is being hidden from view because it would be persecuted otherwise (e.g., witchcraft), whether it is overlooked because no one takes it seriously (e.g., UFOs and ESP), or whether it has to be concealed in order to function.
In European alchemy, for instance, there has always been a suggestion that the cloaking of secrecy was somehow intrinsic to its power; for the great 20th-century adept Fulcanelli, the massive subterranean foundations of French cathedrals and the black Madonnas often found down in those crypts symbolized the dependence of the Great Work on obscurity: “Real, but occult, power, which is exercised in secret, develops in the darkness, toils without respite in the deep foundations of the work.”
Jacques Vallee has been saying for years that our materialistic fetishism for the nuts-and-bolts secrets of UFO propulsion is a block on our imagination and a hindrance to scientific understanding of the phenomenon; there are countless other possibilities besides ‘alien spaceships propelled by antigravity.’ Thinking differently about how our visual system interprets anomalous phenomena can help illuminate some of these other possibilities. Special effects can be useful in this effort, producing breakthroughs in how we see the problem in our mind’s eye.
For example, the idea of portals and gateways is a popular one currently, yet writers mainly still operate on the mental model of aerial vessels or beings passing through these portals. But this could be missing the point. A portal itself, as shown by the intergalactic wormhole in Interstellar, would appear visually as a convex, three-dimensional object having volume, not as a “hole” or doorway. This raises the possibility that some UFOs could themselves be small wormholes generated by a machine in some advanced laboratory somewhere (or somewhen).
If this is the case, the visible exterior of a “flying saucer” might actually be the inner chamber of a wormhole-making machine.
Innies That Look Like Outies
Interstellar showed how a wormhole in space would look from a distance a lot like a glass Christmas tree ornament (right). The refracted light of stars seen through and beyond it would be interpreted visually as reflected light, as off a shiny object. As you approached and lost sight of the “rim” in your peripheral vision you would see that there was actually no surface and that the convex appearance had been an optical illusion.
A wormhole created in the high-tech laboratory of some future “Wormhole Inc.” would look very different. It would not show stars beyond it but simply the insides of the machine or chamber generating the wormhole. Thus, it might look metallic, perhaps something like a big vacuum chamber in a physics lab turned inside-out. Visually, from a safe distance, it would appear solid and round because we would interpret its surface as convex (pushing toward us). Only as you approached it—or as it approached you—would its perspective seem to distort and your senses might finally realize you were seeing into the insides of a machine or chamber of some sort.
More likely, of course, you would be too confused, frightened, and upset by the encounter to “realize” anything at all. You would lack any precedent in your experience for such a phenomenon—or even any sci-fi special effect to relate it to.
Consider the classic archetypal flying saucer or lozenge with windows around the rim, maybe with occupants looking out, as described by Betty and Barney Hill after their famous abduction (left). This seems like what a circular wormhole-creating chamber with observation windows looking into it might look like. The figures “watching out the windows” of the flying saucer could actually be proud technicians peering into their wormhole chamber.
Critical ufologists like Mac Tonnies have pointed out the absurdities and inconsistencies in the Hill case—the theatrically presented star map, the not-super-high-tech (or spaceship-like) exam room, and so on. Abductees often describe interiors that are bigger on the inside than the outside or that don’t correspond well to the tightly packed and neatly arranged environment one would expect of a spacecraft. It has often been suspected that the examinations (if real) are actually taking place at an earth-bound facility somewhere, not on the “saucer.”
A wormhole generated in, and projected from, some large, land-based facility (e.g., on earth, in the future, or on another planet) would explain a number of things. It would eliminate the problem of packing enormous amounts of energy into a moderately sized object: If what looks like a saucer is really just the Wormhole Inc. laboratory turned inside out then it need not contain anything—no people, and no power plant.
I am momentarily ignoring, of course, the vastly greater energy needed to create a wormhole, versus levitate a 30-foot metal disk. Current physics grants wormhole technology to Type-III civilizations capable of harnessing the energy of their whole galaxy—quite a big power plant—so my thought experiment is presuming some unforeseen technical leap or discovery making the process much more convenient.
If we do grant such a leap enabling lab-made wormholes, the theory could perhaps also help account for the laser-pointer-like motion of UFOs, which suggests they could be something insubstantial like an image being projected and stabilized in the air and not physical, massive objects actually flying. Whereas their frequent appearance on radar would make the volumetric hologram theory unlikely, a lab-made wormhole inserted into our airspace would indeed produce a radar return, albeit perhaps slightly distorted or displaced—the radar waves would simply bounce off the interior walls of the wormhole chamber and right back out. (In contrast, a space wormhole wouldn’t appear on radar because the radar waves would have nothing to bounce off of.) But the hole itself would have no mass, as the mass is all back at the lab.
A wormhole generator also more realistically solves the more fundamental “relativistic” problem: How to bring people (e.g., relatives) to you instead of going to them—because as grown-ups realize on occasions like Thanksgiving, it’s more fun being a host than a guest. A wormhole enables you to interact with distant objects and people from the comfort of your own laboratory, not have to pack yourself into a cramped ship and go on an annoying or dangerous journey. We should bear in mind that interacting with or manipulating unwitting guests like the Hills is probably the least of a wormhole generator’s many fabulous uses.
The World Turned Inside-Out
Beyond depicting a solution to “nuts and bolts” problems of long-distance travel, a wormhole also shows us that inside and outside are relative—one observer’s outside is another observer’s inside.
Although Interstellar was disappointing in some ways (like a clumsy script full of expository dialogue, as well as pretty lackluster spaceships), it depicted wormhole travel really well, and it also spectacularly depicted exactly the future-intervention-via-tesseract theory for paranormal phenomena that various sci-fi writers (from Madeleine L’Engle to Philip K Dick) have groped to convey in their fiction. Sometimes you need new special effects to visualize problems and produce an “aha” experience; when that happens, new solutions and new theories appear more readily.
For one thing, we are at a crux in our science and our culture when a new model is desperately needed to think about the relationship between consciousness and material reality. Much as I’m sympathetic with those who privilege consciousness against materialistic reductionism, I think a more nuanced and nonhierarchical relationship between mind and matter must be possible. A wormhole-UFO could provide such a model.
Such a beast helps us visualize, for example, how material reality is just what consciousness looks like from the outside. Matter itself isn’t the illusion, in other words—nor is consciousness. The illusion may simply be the “convex” appearance of the material world.
The word “exist” comes from the Greek eksistere, “to stand forth.” As mystics from time immemorial have insisted, the material world is a manifestation of consciousness—the self-world continuum experienced passively, as observed, rather than actively, as observing. These two aspects pass from one to the other at certain mysterious boundaries—in dreams, at death, and in paranormal phenomena (such as UFOs) that turn our outside into an inside (or vice versa) without our quite being aware how we made the passage.
It’s been over twenty years since I last read Dune, but inspired partly by the phenomenal documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, I recently re-read Frank Herbert’s masterpiece and a few of the sequels. Although the latter are uneven, I need hardly say that Dune itself holds up magnificently. It is still the one novel I would put in the hands of a teenager—even more than anything by Tolkien (even though Tolkien’s “literary worth” is probably greater)—because of the priceless seeds the book planted in me when I was the age of its main character, Paul. (For instance, “the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It’s shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn …”—that’s a powerful message every adolescent needs to hear and I am ever thankful I paid attention; and the “litany against fear” was incalculably important to me.)
Although the Dune books are about many things, it is sometimes forgotten (amid praise for Herbert’s world-building and his anticipation of American-Mid-East relations in the 70s and beyond) that they are significantly about seeing the future; the sequels, particularly, are basically an extended thought experiment about the siddhi of precognition and the pitfalls of prophecy. Thus I couldn’t help read them now in the light of my interest in psi research and the nexus of science fiction and the human potential movement being newly examined by writers and scholars like Jeffrey Kripal (whose Mutants and Mystics and Authors of the Impossible I can’t recommend highly enough).
According to Kripal, the notion that humans are on the threshold of the next phase in our evolution and that psychic abilities will be a big part of it is an idea that goes back to Frederic Myers in the late 19th century. Myers likened our nascent psychic powers to the “imaginal characters” or structures present in a caterpillar that hint at its future transformation into an aerial being. This imminent metamorphosis has remained a dominant meme pervading comic books, of course, most famously in the X-men, not to mention sci-fi visionaries from Alfred Bester to Herbert to Philip K. Dick.
But despite the democratizing impulse in modern writers on psi, like Russell Targ and Dean Radin, who emphasize that we all have latent psi abilities that we can develop if we choose, it is important to bear in mind some important social and maybe even evolutionary reasons why certain forms of psi—especially precognition—are not already more widespread than they are, why they may actually not be part of our species’ birthright, and why they may even not be such a great idea in the larger scheme of things. Herbert keyed in on some of these reasons in his novels; the ancient yogis like Patanjali keyed in on others.
Muddying the Waters
A rarely considered pitfall of prescience that Herbert used brilliantly as a plot device in Dune Messiah is that if more than one individual can see the future, it tends to negate both of their abilities. In a conspiracy to assassinate Paul Muad’Dib, the plotters involve in their plans a Guild Steersman, whose spice-induced oracular vision effectively cloaks the whole affair from Paul’s mental futurescape.
The reason for this effect is simple when you think about it: If precognition is not seeing the future as such but seeing some vague and shifting topography of possibilities in a butterfly-effect universe (as Herbert sort of characterizes it), then the possibility and usefulness of foresight become radically limited once it becomes shared by others. A glimpse of the landscape of future possibilities by one freely willed being capable of altering that future must inevitably muddy the temporal waters for other precogs/prophets.
When you start to multiply the number of people with oracular vision (and thus freedom to alter what they see through even minor actions), then the seen, malleable future breaks down rather quickly. Even a few rival seers would tend to negate each others’ powers; if a whole species could exercise prescient abilities, the time stream would become a hopelessly opaque and deceptive mush. In such a state of affairs, there would clearly be diminishing utility in being able to see the future at all. You would be better off blind to all but the present and past, so as not to be distracted by prophetic information that was probably wrong.
There is a paranoid belief that someone or some force is keeping us down psychically, keeping us unaware of our true natures and working to thwart the development of our true ESP capabilities. Remote-viewing inventor Ingo Swann confided to Jacques Vallee in 1979 that “There’s a non-human system that keeps the human race under observation to make sure it doesn’t develop psychically … You become aware of the barriers erected by this system as soon as you try to develop your psychic abilities.” This seems to be a standard Gnostic suspicion, echoed in comic book mythologies: Extraterrestrials or Archons fear our psychic potential and have thus installed some kind of restraining bolt in our minds. The sense of some ancient psychic lock being blown off or removed, opening floodgates of forbidden information, seems like a common sentiment among the psychically awakened—for instance Philip K Dick in his 2-3-74 experience, or the Scientology-steeped remote viewers at SRI (it’s all about “clearing blockages”).
But evolution itself (social if not biological) provides ample reason why such mutations or experiences may not herald some new evolutionary phase in human development and why the forces of psychic inhibition may be far more mundane (and even beneficial) than Swann suspected. Because of the Dune Messiah logic I mentioned, there may be completely natural, homeostatic mechanisms working to limit our cognitive receptivity to future events or possibilities, causing such a sensitivity to atrophy and be selected against in the population. There would be social pressures not to be precognitive, and we might even evolve some kind of biological blinder mechanism to block it out, on the model of Bergson’s reducing valve.
I don’t have any insight into what the biological/genetic basis for precognition or its inhibition might be, but the social mechanisms inhibiting foresight and prophecy are plain enough. Ostracism, persecution, and violence against people accused of witchcraft and sorcery are still endemic in many societies and surely go back to the dawn of history. Witch-killings are still rampant in many parts of the world. A leader of a Papua New Guinea village I visited in the early 1990s had spent time in jail for disemboweling a suspected sorcerer with a machete; it still happens all the time in that country. It doesn’t matter that in most such cases—as in Europe in the Middle Ages or in early America—“witchcraft” was a broad brush with which to tar all kinds of personal enemies and social outcasts, such as the old, the poor, and women. The point was, it was a serious deterrent to deviance of all kinds, including psychic deviance.
Societies provide strict, narrow social channels to a career in prophecy, such as the accepted shamanic paths that exist in traditional cultures, and it’s a dangerous career: You better be damn sure you are perceived as using your powers for healing, not harming. The threat of ostracism and violence must act as a powerful check on “developing your ESP abilities” (i.e., having truck with the spirit world) if you live in a traditional community.
In our enlightened society, psi-inhibition takes less disturbing forms, namely rabid skepticism and materialism and ridicule of the paranormal. But even if it is less violent than traditional social controls, such ridicule is still a very powerful deterrent. Writers encouraging people to develop their remote viewing abilities, like Targ, emphasize that simple “permission” to remote view is a crucial first step. Even those intellectually persuaded of the possibility and eager to learn often have massive unconscious inhibitions that get in the way.
Thus, there is no need to invoke non-human, extraterrestrial, or Archonic interference to explain lack of widespread psi ability: Social expectations that psi not only does not exist but that it is actually ridiculous do a fine job of keeping people from peering into the future.
There’s an interesting kicker of course: The more “beyond the pale” psi and prophecy become, the more effective they would be for those able and brave enough to exercise these abilities. Even if the barriers against psi were rooted in our genes, chance and mutation would dictate that enhanced precognitive ability would arise from time to time; although there could be no group, society, let alone species of prescients, there might be a rare individual, a mutant who saw the future and capitalized on it. A prevailing present- and past-mindedness in the masses would create a relatively unmuddied futurescape navigable by a gifted individual able to capitalize on the herd’s future-blindness. Indeed, through this evolutionary logic, those who benefit the most from the social suppression of prophecy would be the prophets themselves.
There are good analogies to this in evolutionary biology, one of them being sociopathy. Because we are socially dependent animals and society is built on trust, humans have evolved to essentially trust each other. It’s a very sound long-term evolutionary strategy, but it also makes us vulnerable to occasional manipulators who are able to cynically capitalize on that trust. Such individuals only arise at relatively low levels in the population, because when there are too many untrustworthy people in a community, people stop trusting, and the community breaks down. But when they arise, they tend to rise to the top. (Research shows many CEOs and politicians are sociopaths, for example.)
Prophecy might work the same way, as a “frequency dependent, socially parasitic strategy” (to quote George Dvorsky in an article on sociopaths). Despite the “democratizing” impulse of contemporary psi teachers and enthusiasts, some of these talents may only work if they are rare and most people don’t practice them or don’t believe in them. There are various ways in which the paranormal erects a barrier between the herd and an elect, and this is one of them—another variant of what I call the “anamorphic wedge” that seems to operate in other domains like UFOs.
I’ve argued previously that there’s a dark elitist undercurrent to sci-fi Gnosticism that can be seen plainly in its most famous manifestation, Scientology: L. Ron Hubbard was the Ayn Rand of psychic human potential, preaching pure selfishness with a sci-fi twist. From what it is possible to glean of its methods, I don’t doubt their efficacy. It was in an out-of-body experience during early Scientology training that Pat Price’s formidable psychic abilities, dormant for a half century of life, awakened: “I was asked to sit down and look at some other guy for period of time and do nothing. After about three minutes I found myself outside of my body, looking at him looking at me. It was very interesting.” (John L. Wilhelm’s excellent 1976 book The Search for Superman is a great resource on Price, Swann, and the SRI work with Uri Geller.)
The superpower benefits that arise through Scientology training may not be accidentally related to the clear and obvious drawbacks of that lifestyle: Namely, intellectual isolation and social ostracism as a result of being, lets face it, kind of an asshole. Scientology training includes exercises (like the one Price mentioned) designed specifically to break down or cleanse the participant of social anxieties and emotions that we possess for a reason, thus turning the “operating Thetan” into an intense, intimidating, “aggressive” savant who may not thrive outside the company of other Scientologists. Real X-men could potentially look a lot like them: out of touch and megalomaniacal, but with some authentic supernormal abilities as a kind of grim consolation prize.
Fear is the mind-killer…
Despite lifelong skepticism, I have become persuaded of the reality of psi in general and of precognition in particular. Once you take even the slightest interest in the subject, fate provides ample confirmation in the form of uncanny premonitions and synchronicities. Having followed J.W. Dunne’s protocol in An Experiment with Time, I have confirmed to my own satisfaction (which seems all anyone can ever hope for in parapsychology) that his thesis is correct: In any given week of faithfully recorded dreams, a consistent minority of dream elements encode future experiences, usually of the subsequent day but occasionally farther out, exactly the same way the majority of dream elements encode recent past experiences—and through exactly the same “art of memory” logic I have described elsewhere. In dreams we are remembering the future as well as the past. Hypnagogic imagery and voices are also a rich source of precognitive material, and plain-old remote viewing of tomorrow’s New York Times can also produce interesting results.
Invariably in my case, these bits of future information are fragmentary and useless from the standpoint of planning or guidance. I’m no prophet—and I’m not sure I’d really want to be. Another “inhibitory” function I’ve discovered in my venturing imperfectly down the psi path is simple existential fear. While omnisicence and expanded consciousness sound totally awesome to my inner 10-year-old, I’ve discovered that my outer 47-year-old is deeply fearful of learning too much about the future. There are too many dark terrors that objectively lie in wait for us all—illness and death of self and loved ones are biggies—and the temptation to dwell unproductively on ominous signs (like a strange cough or unfamiliar pain) is great enough at times without the added burden of trying to decipher scary symbols and portents gained through psi channels. Among the siddhis described by Patanjali is the yogi’s ability to see his/her own death. No thanks.
Because the energy of psychic phenomena is trauma (as Frederic Myers discerned in the 19th century), it makes sense that death and destruction would be dominant themes in our prophecies. And sure enough, the bulk of my precognitive dream material does concern something at least slightly negative, usually just uncomfortable or unpleasant social experiences but also news of crimes, disasters, or death. This focus on the negative gives rise to an ironic and unwholesome logic: The eagerness for psi to work or to confirm your own powers causes one not only to focus on negatives but even at times to hope for them—for example, having a strange dream about a certain celebrity and then eagerly checking some news site to see if they died or have been involved in some scandal. Obviously, “eagerness to find out someone died” is not at all a congenial frame of mind to be in if you aspire to be a spiritual or positive person.
Thus I think there really is some way in which precognition is “toying with dark forces,” although it isn’t anything as grandiose as “opening up doorways to other worlds” or awakening evil or Tricksterish energies (even if those are real too). It’s simply a matter of reinforcing unwholesome aspects of the ego—plain old negativity, which is bad karma (and unhealthy) no matter how you look at it.
I suspect all these factors may have played into ancient teachers’ disinterest in the siddhis and into modern teachers’ reluctance to discuss them. Patanjali warned not to get attached to superpowers in your meditative practice, and he’s not just talking about showing off (as Radin suggests in his book Supernormal). Attachment itself is the root of suffering; attachment to psi may bring its own unique sufferings and doubts that are simply not wholesome to harbor, such as those I’ve mentioned. So, while the 10-year-old me is incredibly glad that the paranormal and supernormal are gaining legitimacy through the work of Kripal, Targ, Radin, and others, I also would hope that we not lose sight of our basic humanity in our quest to become superhuman. Sometimes it’s also awesome to be (merely) normal.
“We live in a world of opposites, of extreme evil and violence opposed to goodness and peace. It’s that way here for a reason but we have a hard time grasping what the reason is. In struggling to understand the reason, we learn about balance and there’s a mysterious door right at that balance point. We can go through that door anytime we get it together.” —David Lynch
Many fans of David Lynch’s films are probably aware that he started as a painter and has continued to work in that medium all his life. (For example, they may have glimpsed him at work in his atelier in the documentary that accompanies the Inland Empire DVD.) But it has been frustrating trying to find examples of his paintings and drawings because there has been no single book comprehensively showcasing them. Finally, David Lynch: The Unified Field, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied as a young man, beautifully displays this “other” side of Lynch’s creativity.
It’s a gorgeous book, with an excellent long essay by Robert Cozzolino. It will do much to help Lynch claim the recognition he deserves as a very serious and original artist in a completely different medium from his film and TV work. I’ve spent days thumbing through it already and it is still full of delights and surprises.
Lynch’s paintings, which are bold, childlike and threatening, remind me of Francis Bacon crossed with a dark Cy Twombly, often integrating thickly spackled paint (he mentions feeling the urge to chew on his paintings) with text that is either ultra-banal or psychotic. They reflect many of the same themes that recur in his movies, such as the violence, madness, perverse sexuality, and even paranormal phenomena that can be found when you peel back the surface of outwardly bland American life—or, that become visible at a smaller scale, when you zoom in. But—and this is crucial—they are also often funny; there is typically a sly poke in the ribs underneath the overt threat. (This is what sets him far apart from Bacon, say.)
Lynch’s early “moving picture” installation, “Six Men Getting Sick” (which has been recreated for the PAFA exhibition), is like a prototype for many of his later works both in film and on canvas. Six faces imprisoned in a gray-white wall vomit repeatedly; they cannot leave the wall, cannot get up and go to the doctor or even to the toilet, but are trapped in a perpetual materialist hell, purging throughout eternity. It somewhat reminds me of HR Giger’s transhumanist visions of immobilized sentiences trapped and suffering in and from brute matter, although Lynch’s outwardly “ugly” spectacle is far more ambiguous and strange than Giger’s sleek, seductive machine-erotic futurescapes.
On one level, Lynch could be called a painter of matter—of vomit, dirt, muck, rust, and biological decay that step in to co-create the world after humans have contributed their part. He is quoted in the opening essay about being allowed to spend time with corpses in the Philadelphia morgue when he was in art school, and the beauty he finds in “organic processes” that he got from his time spent with his father, who was a specialist in tree diseases working for the Forest Service when he was a child in Montana. Throughout his works, abandoned factories, mud and sores, or the brown stains on the made world, all become sublime.
But the matter, even when or especially when it is decaying and messy, is only barely covering over something deeper (or higher). In interviews (and in his brief 2007 book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity), Lynch always takes the opportunity to tell people how his own youthful anger and neurosis were cured through Transcendental Meditation and that his creativity is fueled by his twice-daily practice of dipping into the fundamental wellspring he calls the “unified field.” He would thus surely not mind us using his paintings for meditation or as advertisements for the rewards of meditation. Specific altered states of perception I have experienced as a byproduct of my own Zen-influence practice help me pin down exactly what the mysterious X quality in his paintings is—the precise tension they invoke (at least in me).
Buddhist writers don’t like to dwell on the mild altered states produced by meditation, preferring that we not get attached to them, but when you detach from your environment even for very brief periods, the world can afterwards take on a funny, mysterious, alive-yet-dead quality that is full of exciting unseen potential. I have noticed for years that after meditating, the world has an altered character that feels distinctly “Lynchian”: Specifically, it feels like the world has suddenly become the world of Twin Peaks—the ordinary, mundane world, but with something added that is a mix of mysterious, humorous, ominous, and subtly exciting. This is why I was so excited to finally get a book of Lynch’s paintings—to see if they had this same quality. I was not disappointed.
One way to think of the subtly altered state of perception I’m referring to is in terms of the “imaginal” that was described by Sufi scholar Henri Corbin: a kind of transfigured surreality overlaid on or coexisting with the everyday world, shimmering in and out of existence. Objects shine funny, oddly, significantly. They wink, ever so slightly. The importance of everything, even just this ashtray or coffee table or lamp, is ever so slightly elevated because through some subtle alteration of frequency, some slight turn of the dial, the shitty bathroom or grocery store or parking lot you happen to be standing in has suddenly become the VIP section of an international spirit-world airport, where one just might encounter other enlightened beings passing through. Even pieces of garbage or dead leaves are “slightly enlightened” celebrities, and you belong in their exciting world.
I think of this imaginal as a dangerous-feeling and uncomfortable perimeter or no-man’s land that surrounds the blissful Void or Absolute (or “unified field”) that all forms of meditation and mysticism aim for. The ultimate aim is not to linger in this perimeter zone, but you do need to pass through it—and the passage can be really enjoyable and interesting in its own right. This book of paintings confirms for me that Lynch, through his meditation practice, knows about this imaginal no-man’s land and that this is specifically what he is trying to show to us (because the unified field itself can’t be shown). Anything can happen, is about to happen, in this zone, and it pays to be fully awake and alert to the enhanced potential even in the most inanimate of objects and phenomena in it.
This imaginal is also a feeling of the world being like a veil. I don’t think it is accidental that Lynch’s film and TV work often includes drapery, most famously the “Black Lodge” of Twin Peaks, where strange shapes float behind red velvet curtains. However, what I actually think of more than drapes per se is the billowing dirty plastic covering the bare two-by-fours in the unfinished home where Shelly Johnson spoons baby food into the dribbling mouth of her ominously comatose husband Leo. If there’s any image from Lynch’s “moving picture” world that gives you a sense of what you’re in for with his paintings (such as the ominous triptych “Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House,” above), that would have to be it.
The apparent danger and craziness is not as real as it first appears; it has more to do with our own attitude. Even or especially in his most violent, threatening images, such as “Change the Fuckin Channel Fuckface” (below), or “I Burn Pinecone and Throw in Your House,” you can see Lynch standing back, with a slight mischievous twinkle in his eye, smiling, and you can see that he is actually smiling with you. He wants you to be pulled in, tripped up, as well as held at a slight distance, because this tension has something to teach us, and he wants to help us see it. He is inviting us to ride along with him in his buggy, on an interior journey that he sincerely believes can help everybody.
Getting past this imaginal, to the unified field, is not an intellectual exercise of decoding or interpreting hidden meanings: “It’s better not to know so much about what things mean or how they might be interpreted,” Lynch says. “Psychology destroys the mystery, this kind of magic quality. It can be reduced to certain neuroses or certain things, and since it is now named and defined, it’s lost its potential for a vast, infinite experience.” (Half a century ago, Rene Magritte said almost exactly the same thing, reacting against Freudians finding phallic symbols and such in his paintings: “Art, as I conceive it, is resistant to psychoanalysis. It evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist. … Nobody in his right mind believes that psychoanalysis could elucidate the mystery of the universe.”) Yet Lynch’s works bait such interpretation. This baiting and snatching away is part of the point, part of their “M.O.”—which is actually a very Rinzai Zen approach to enlightenment. As I’ve written previously about Mulholland Drive, you must go through the natural impulse to interpret Lynch’s work in order to finally break through the other side, into the irrational and transcendent.
There’s nothing “preachy” about Lynch’s paintings, any more than there is in his movies, but the spiritual message is definitely there if you look for it. One of my favorite pieces in the book is “Holding onto the Relative (with One Eye on Heaven)” (at the top of this post) showing one of his typical disturbing/monstrous brown figures with elongated arms clinging desperately to the pulsating red heart of matter while looking toward the sun and screaming. Lynch’s philosophy I think is made pretty plain here: The frightening dimension is not simply the way things are, but the way we make them because we are afraid of letting go, or are holding on too tightly. Stretched-out arms and “reaching” (as well as arms/hands that are diseased) recur again and again in Lynch’s images, and I think it relates to this idea, and to the opposing forces that we cling to and that threaten to pull us apart.
It is frequently suggested that UFOs originate in or at least travel through other, higher dimensions. The examples of interdimensional interaction in E.A. Abbott’s classic fable Flatland are often cited to illustrate how such an intrusion into lower dimensions from higher ones might appear. A sphere passing through Flatland (a world with two spatial dimensions and one of time) would appear to the locals as a point that expanded into a widening circle and then dwindled to a point again and vanished (below). Flatlanders (who are all simple shapes like polygons) would be rather astonished at this violation of their common-sense laws: Things don’t just expand from nothing and then dwindle and disappear again.
Extrapolating to our 4-D reality (3 spatial dimension and 1 time dimension), this does seem like what many UFOs do: They appear out of nowhere, sometimes expanding and changing shape before disappearing again, as though some higher-dimensional object were transiting our dimensionally challenged world. In this view, the UFO we see at any given moment is just the “section” of a 4- or more dimensional spatial object (e.g., a hypersaucer).
But there is another possibility.
The number of dimensions possible in the universe is hotly debated in physics. I’ve seen the number 11 thrown around a lot, for example, although as I understand it most of these dimensions are thought to be somehow “folded into” the four we directly experience. I honestly don’t know what that means, let alone how to envision it. But another even more interesting theory holds that our purely common sense perception of space and time actually overestimates the spatial dimensionality of our world—that there are actually just two dimensions of space, and that the third dimension (volume) is an illusion.
This is the holographic theory proposed by Dutch physicist Gerard ’t Hooft as an outgrowth of string theory, to explain quantum gravity. Wikipedia describes it this way: “the theory suggests that the entire universe can be seen as a two-dimensional information structure ‘painted’ on the cosmological horizon, such that the three dimensions we observe are an effective description only at macroscopic scales and at low energies.”
Quantum physics is mostly beyond me, I admit, but I do understand general relativity, and doesn’t Einstein’s work already suggests this possibility? As an object approaches the speed of light (gaining mass and energy), it is flattened in the direction of travel, becoming two dimensional; it thus makes some sense that in the “light world” of high-energy particles, two-dimensional space would have to be the norm.
And thus, instead of some kind of enhanced depth, as movie special effects like to portray it, hyperspace would actually be a flat, picture-like place.
From Flatland to Fatland and Back Again
I realize that “painted” is being used somewhat metaphorically in Wiki’s summary, but artistic illusions of spatial depth on flat surfaces (which was partly the subject of my PhD dissertation several years ago) suggest other possible interpretations for how UFOs may actually be interacting with our world—not from higher dimensions but from lower ones.
Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors (at the top of this post) shows a typical Renaissance scene of two important men surrounded by sumptuous worldly goods, but jutting across the bottom of the painting is a strange elongated object (left). From straight on, it doesn’t really look like anything—it has been compared to a baguette—and a viewer might even overlook or ignore the anomaly, regarding it as a mistake or a stain of some kind. It is actually an example of anamorphosis—an image only visible from a very oblique angle.
Anamorphosis is widely used nowadays to make lettering and icons on roadway surfaces visible from the steep angle of a driver moving toward them (e.g., the bicycle at right), but it is also a clever way to put hidden images in pictures. When you stand off to the right side of The Ambassadors, up near the canvas, the “baguette” becomes visible as a skull (below). Skulls were commonly included in paintings of the period—especially paintings showing displays of wealth—as symbols of vanitas, or the transitoriness of life, reminding the viewer not to get too attached. We don’t know if Holbein was being deliberately mischievous with his anamorphic skull, but he was certainly showing off his skills with perspective (then a relatively recent invention), since anamorphosis requires considerable advance planning and mathematical precision.
The notion of portals or wormholes is popular nowadays in ufology, but the holographic hypothesis raises the possibility that UFOs could be sliding into and out of our (apparently) 3-D world from some high-energy Flatland—like a note slid under a door rather than a person opening it up and stepping through.
High-energy Flatlanders (or perhaps more likely, high-energy exotic technology capable of carrying ordinary 3-D beings from place to place via flat hyperspace) could be nearly invisible or completely non-understandable except when seen from a specific vantage point. This by itself is suggestive, given the fleeting, elusive, hard-to-verify nature of so many UFOs. Who knows?—Our eyes may pass over high-energy beings or technology all the time, but our visual system may generally ignore such anomalies because they make no sense or just blend into their surroundings.
I have long been troubled by the “higher dimensions” hypothesis, partly because it seems so unfair: If higher spacial dimensions reality exist, why would our cognitive faculties be so blind to them? What point is there for us to be only conscious of some of the dimensions available, in contrast to supposed higher dimensional beings who can dip into our impoverished reality occasionally and pity us? I am inclined to think that, with dimensions as with so many other things, less is more, and already our four dimensions are an embarrassment of riches. It may be our visitors (or their technology) that are “dimensionally challenged,” not us.
Somebody could write a sequel to Flatland, called Fatland, about spheres trying to come to grips with the appearance of a circle among them. Inevitably the Flatlander (circle) would appear merely as a line at first, and only widen out into a visible narrow oval and then finally a circle as it drew very close to an observer, but quickly it would dwindle to a mere line again as it receded. From most vantage points it would blend in or at least not be very distinct or salient, and there would be very little agreement among the spheres as to whether there was even anything there at all, let alone what its shape really was.
The Anamorphic Wedge
I want to briefly consider one further aspect of painterly anamorphosis that is suggestive for UFOs—this time in terms of the “control system” hypothesis advocated by Jacques Vallee.
As I said, anamorphic images can only be seen from a very restricted point of view—while one person sees the image, other people standing straight in front of the painting will see nothing, or will not know what they are looking at. Such images thus serve as kind of a wedge between consensus reality and the solitary, privileged viewpoint of the (intended) witness.
There are more aspects to this social-psychological effect of anamorphosis than first meets the eye.
Besides revealing itself to the selected witness, an anamorphic image also, in some sense, “frames” the rest of those viewers in his/her field of vision. Other people are suddenly seen standing there in front of the painting but blindly missing its point or its “true meaning.” In other words, anamorphosis not only displays itself as a hidden secret (thereby making the intended viewer feel special and chosen), it also highlights the ignorance and limited perspective of others in one’s social imaginary. Whether “the ignorance of the masses” is an accurate portrayal or not, it could be part of the intended take-away from a UFO encounter.
What’s more, social separation or isolation or even ostracism of the witness could be the intended effect, not just an unfortunate byproduct, of such an encounter. It’s at least a possibility to keep in mind, that UFOs, whatever they are, could be anamorphic phenomena aiming not only to manipulate or deceive witnesses but also to socially and psychologically isolate them, or separate them from the herd.
Over on UFO Conjecture(s), Rich Reynolds takes issue with the notion of “The Trickster” that is being increasingly invoked in ufology:
“Just as Christians and other religious aficionados think Satan or angels are real beings, ufologists like to use The Trickster as a real being, causing some UFO sightings or events. It’s an ignorant stance. Even as God is an iffy reality, The Trickster is so much more so. I would hope that readers here would refrain from stretching credulity to a breaking point by using The Trickster metaphor as an explanation for some UFO events.”
Reynolds is right that the Trickster concept can’t serve as an explanation. But at least in my reading of the topic, including George Hansen’s massive study The Trickster and the Paranormal or books tangentially invoking the concept, like Colm Kelleher and George Knapp’s Hunt for the Skinwalker, the term isn’t being used in a literalistic way to denote a “real being.” Rather it is being used, quite appropriately I think, as a shorthand term for a type of sentience or intention that seems to underlie a wide range of paranormal phenomena (ranging from UFOs to psychic experiences to hauntings) and that has a distinctly ironic, thwarting character. There’s no other term that quite fits the bill as well as “Trickster.”
I don’t see people using the term to mean a literal god or godlike being (a la Coyote or Hermes … or Satan, for that matter) whose purpose and mission is to screw with human affairs. The whole point of using the term is to avoid pinning UFOs’ origins down in all the ways they have been too narrowly pinned down throughout the history of ufology. It is far, far preferable to the term “extraterrestrials,” for instance—which truly is a completely distorting, biasing, pigeonholing rubric that has done untold damage to the field of ufology. (If I could beg ufologists to stop using any term, it would be that one, as there is no actual evidence, in all the millions of UFO encounters since the dawn of recorded history—and how could there be?—that the intelligences responsible, wherever they may occasionally say or imply they originate, are actually from other planets.)
Trickster is a useful term because it leaves the door wide open as to causation and origin while being descriptive of a very particular and peculiar phenomenology of many UFO experiences: the distinct and uncanny sense that there is not only a sentience underlying it but that this sentience can anticipate our actions in order to thwart our efforts at studying it. As an alternative, John Alexander offers the term “precognitive sentient phenomena”:
“The precognitive sentient phenomena concept suggests that there is some external controlling agent that initiates these events that are observed and reported. It appears as though that agent not only determines all factors of the event, but is already (i.e. precognitively) aware of how the observers or researchers will respond to any given stimuli. The agent can be considered like the Trickster that is always in control of the observations. Every time researchers get close to an understanding of the situation, the parameters are altered or new variables are entered into the equation.”
Precognitive sentient phenomena is a good term, but it is a mouthful. Trickster is a handy placeholder and shorthand … that is, pending some kind of a real explanation.
The Trickster does not refer simply to life’s tendency to have ups and downs, as Reynolds suggests in his post, but to something much more specific. Signaling as it does a nod to archetypal psychology, the term registers the possibility (at least) that these phenomena may be linked to our own consciousness or unconscious in ways we don’t yet fathom. Plus, the fact that world mythologies and folklore have always included beings who personify precisely these “precognitive sentient” qualities that are seen again and again not only in ufology but also in parapsychology is itself highly suggestive of something … and I don’t think anyone who uses the term precisely knows what, but it’s a useful fact to keep in the back of our minds.
That said, however, it is good to be wary of such placeholder terms, because they do sometimes end up sticking around long past their due date—and this is especially true of other terms associated with Jungian psychology. “Synchronicity” is such a term, which did not actually denote an original concept (Paul Kammerer had already described essentially the same thing with his notion of “seriality”) and has never been useful in helping us theorize ESP. In a future post I will argue that parapsychologists and “synchromystics” should avoid using Jungian vocabulary, because many of his once-novel terms and metaphors have now become conceptual straightjackets limiting our thinking.
I’m not worried about The Trickster, however, because its application to ufology and other unexplained phenomena is relatively new and harmless, and it’s much better than constantly talking about “ET.” But if he’s still hanging around in 10 or 20 years, that may indeed start to get awkward.
Well, there are many kinds of films. Most of them, nowadays, don’t demand much thinking. That makes me very, very upset. It makes me upset that they think the audiences have grown unused to thinking and that they only want things spelled out for them, in a platter. That’s bullshit, and a big one. People love to think. We are all detectives. We love to observe, we love to deduce. It is great to pay attention. We have a lot of fun this way. — David Lynch, on Mulholland Drive
You’re not thinking. You’re too busy being a smart-aleck to be thinking.—The Cowboy, Mulholland Drive
Suffering comes from the energy we perpetually expend in keeping up appearances of knowing, the constant knowing attitude we take toward life. Been there, done that, same old same old. It becomes the armor we clothe ourselves with—projecting this image that I know who I am, and why I’m here, and what I’m doing. In the postmodern world, this attitude has become institutionalized in sarcasm, ironic detachment, snarky jadedness, and (to use the Cowboy’s anachronistic expression) being a smart-aleck.
How true, the words of the Cowboy: We go through our lives taking a too-cool-for-school, smart-alecky attitude toward the givens of our lives, and as a result, fail to think and pay attention.
The Zen masters tried to get their pupils to stop knowing, to un-know, and they had different ways of doing it. The Soto school made the monks just sit, stop imagining they had anything more important to do or anyplace better to be. It’s much tougher than it sounds. It appealed (and still appeals) to students who naturally have calm, relaxed, patient minds. The Rinzai school, on the other hand, used story-puzzles, or koans, and appealed (and still appeals) to active intellects who naturally can’t resist interpreting and solving puzzles. Koans invite intellectual analysis, but at a certain point—weeks or months later—the intellect runs aground, and suddenly the monk finds himself or herself in a transfigured place.
“Rinzai” is how the Japanese pronounce the name of the 9th-Century Chinese master Lin-Chi. David Lynch says of his film Mulholland Drive that “We are all detectives. We love to observe, we love to deduce.” He understands people’s love of interpretation, of playing detective, and I would bet money he created Mulholland Drive as a deliberate koan. If meditated upon at sufficient length, it can take you to a place beyond interpretation. But we have to go through that effort of intellectual interpretation in order to awaken, to transcend. When we do that, we find ourselves not in a meaningless depressing world but in an enlarged, more immense, more spacious place that is full of possibility and importance and power.
I wrote in another post that Mulholland Drive specifically lures you to distinguish the “dream part” from the “real part” of the main character Diane’s (Naomi Watts’) story. Innumerable clues are there to indicate that the first two-thirds of the film, right up until the Cowboy’s “Hey pretty girl, time to wake up,” are meant to be seen as a textbook wish-fulfillment dream sequence that scrambles, rearranges, and transforms all the elements of Diane’s depressing “real-life” predicament—that she has hired a hit-man to kill her glamorous actress lover Camilla (the amnesic dark-haired “Rita” in the dream) after the humiliation and heartbreak of the latter’s rejection of her and announced engagement with a famous film director, Adam Kesher.
After a couple viewings of Mulholland Drive, this interpretation emerges pretty clearly and naturally. The film has thus been compared to The Wizard of Oz: The long dream core of the film consists of elements from the main character’s real life but jumbled and transformed according to dream logic, to create a fantasy that removes all the pains of the dreamer’s existence, erasing all of her guilt, and giving her all the things she wishes for. Textbook Freud.
Once you’ve performed this “natural” interpretive procedure that the film invites, and followed it to its conclusion, you discover that you’ve been led into a trap: When you put the final piece in place, the film shows a message that was not visible before. This is the real genius of a film that is already genius on every more superficial level.
The key to the hidden message is the Cowboy.
The first time we (the audience) see the Cowboy is when he berates Adam Kesher for being a smart-aleck and for thinking he can have any woman he wants as the lead in the film he is making. He also says “You’ll see me once more if you do good, twice if you do bad.” Although it is addressed to the buffoonish Kesher, we likely take this promise as meant for “Betty,” the “real world” Diane, whose story this all really seems to be.
But … if we follow Diane’s “real” chronology as reconstructed in the aforementioned Wizard of Oz interpretation, this dream appearance is actually the second time Diane sees him—the first having been when he briefly walks through the room at the party where Adam and Camilla (dream Rita) announce their engagement. Diane’s dream has transformed this single fleeting “day residue” into one of two central psychopomps in the film (the other being the Club Silencio emcee), and her unconscious creates the dream of the Cowboy chastising and threatening Kesher that he’ll appear twice more if he does bad. This means Diane, the “real” subject of the movie, encounters the Cowboy only once more after this warning before she dies: When he appears at the end of her dream, in her doorway, and tells her it’s time to wake up.
We could interpret this as indicating that Diane has done well … done well, perhaps, by killing herself—after all, her life has become untenable, as she has had her former lover killed and the detectives know, and are knocking on her door. There is no other way out for her but to blow her brains out.
But let’s face it: If it isn’t Diane who’s being bad, then it is us, the viewers, who are being bad, since we do see the Cowboy two more times after his first appearance at the Corral.
Gulp. What did we do wrong? How are we being bad?
The Cowboy has already told us plainly: By being smart-alecks. Smart alecks don’t think they need to pay attention and think about what’s being said to them, because they think they already know, already have things figured out. But of all films, Mulholland Drive is designed as a big demonstration that no, we (we audience members, we human beings) do not have it figured out, and we are in fact very poor learners.
Lynch has said that one of his earliest films, a short called Alphabet, was about the “anxiety of learning.” This theme is clearly alive and well in Lynch’s late works too: Like the characters in his films, we are made to feel dumb by what he shows us. The Club Silencio emcee assures us that there’s no band, that it’s all a recording, and yet we are surprised when a trumpet player stops fingering his instrument and the music continues. And just minutes later, as Rebekah Del Rio sings “Crying,” we are just as amazed when she collapses on stage and her recorded voice continues to sing as we were when the trumpet player stopped playing.
So the Cowboy and the emcee at Club Silencio are both stand-ins for Lynch the Master, Lynch the teacher, who like his close namesake Lin-Chi famously just barked at or struck his pupils get them to see the light.
In Mulholland Drive, we are being shouted at by a teacher whose impatience is, despite his ferocity, infinitely compassionate. This is because his works have a real-world purpose. They are initiations: He is trying to transmit a bit of learning that has been important to him and that he really wants to share with us. We won’t get it as long as we are being smart-alecks, so he is in effect slapping us in the face to get us to stop that behavior long enough to see what he is talking about.
I explained in my earlier post that what he’s trying to get us to see is that there’s no “real” and no “not real” in the film—they are fundamentally the same, just following different narrative rules, just shot in different styles, to lead us into the trap of picking them apart and distinguishing them. It’s like Lynch has taken us on this long, very enjoyable journey, getting us to play detectives (who are, as we speak, knocking loudly on the door), only to lead us to a back alley where we are shown Rene Magritte’s painting The Treason of Images—with a picture of a pipe on a school blackboard and the caption “This is not a pipe”: There’s no “dream” and no “reality” in Mulholland Drive—it’s a movie, stupid. All parts are equally fictional; nothing is more real than anything else. It’s all equally unreal. It’s all a recording.
If we need confirmation, only note the absence of a “real world” counterpart of the mysterious blue box. It is opened in the “dream” by the strange blue key. A mundane version of the blue key is conspicuous in depressed Diane’s apartment at the end, and in a flashback, it is shown to her by the hit man in Winky’s diner, who says she’ll find it “at the place I said” when he has finished his job of offing her lover Camilla (dream Rita). Diane asks, naively, “What does it open?” The hit man gets a quizzical look and just laughs and shrugs at her dumb literal-mindedness: The point is, the key is a message, not actually a functional key that opens anything. There’s no “real” box … just like there’s no band.
A teacher of Tibetan dream yoga, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, writes that “ultimately the meaning in the dream is not important. It is best not to regard the dream as correspondence from another entity to you, not even from another part of you that you do not know. … It may sound strange, but this idea of meaning must be abandoned before the mind can find complete liberation. … Instead penetrate to what is below meaning, the pure base of experience.”
I don’t know if Lynch has ever said it explicitly, but I suspect he would say it, so I’ll venture: Movies, like dreams, can seduce and delight us with their obvious and hidden meanings, but ultimately they should take us to a place beyond meaning. Have fun decoding them, but don’t think that’s enough, that it is just about proving your cleverness; learn to see through the movie to the Real. Lynch’s later movies invite us to interpret and find meaning, but they are koans—traps meant to take us to a higher place. Mulholland Drive is his most exquisitely designed trap.
In my “Psychic Astronauts” post several months ago I thought I was being somewhat original by imagining a hypothetical cost-efficient scenario for our future exploration and colonization of space—one that made use of the interesting (at-this-point-unproven, admittedly highly controversial) notion of nonlocal mind. Specifically, I suggested that highly trained psychic explorers could remote view distant planets, visit them astrally (or, to be pedantically precise, etherically), telepathically manipulate organisms there across vast epochs of their evolutionary history (remembering that nonlocality applies to time as well as space), and then psychically inhabit or “possess” specially bred remote host vessels.
Faxing ourselves across space and time in this fashion sounds convoluted and crazy … but basically, if there is any truth to the claims of psychic researchers, remote viewers, and mystics since time immemorial, then there’s really nothing (other than our own present lack of development of those capacities) that would inherently prevent such a possibility. A project to train hundreds or thousands of psychic astronauts would be far less costly (and time consuming) than even a mere manned Mars mission, let alone a Star Trek-style space program.
I was certainly aware that this plan mashes together various ideas that have all appeared in science fiction—especially from the more open-minded, less slavishly scientistic era of pulp. H.P. Lovecraft, with his telepathic slumbering Old Ones, springs immediately to mind. (More recent scenarios of prehistoric alien visitation/intervention—such as those of Erich von Daniken, Zechariah Sitchin, and lately Ridley Scott—are more mundanely nuts-and-bolts, using actual spaceships, etc., in keeping with the dogmatic materialism of our day.) Until today, though, I had no idea of the true pedigree of the concept of psychic astronautics.
In a landmark archaeology of what could be called ‘ancient psychic astronaut theory’ on his blog The Secret Sun, Christopher Loring Knowles reveals that the Theosophical writings of Alice Bailey, especially her 1922 book Initiation: Human and Solar—supposedly channeling a Tibetan Ascended Master named “Djwal Khul”—describe precisely the scenario I sketched, albeit in reverse: the psychic colonization of Earth (via astral travel) by beings from the Sirius star system, who shaped ape-men into human beings to serve as receptacles for their consciousness.
Knowles is less interested in the crazy scenario than in its literary borrowing (too weak a word) by Lovecraft himself. In a point-by-point comparison, he shows that the parallels between Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” and Bailey’s channeled revelations about Earth’s distant past are so close as to be essentially plagiarism. Knowles suggests that the Darwinian Lovecraft originally wrote his dark novella in 1926 as a parody of the Theosophist’s occult ideas, but that he then carefully omitted all mention of Bailey’s book to his friends, not wanting to betray the unoriginality of his basic (and, in his hands, pretty damn cool) cosmic premise.
Though it doesn’t really dim my appreciation for Lovecraft, I love Knowles’ discovery. He notes that Theosophy, with its violet-hued astral planes and Ascended Masters in flowing gowns, was written mainly for an older, female audience. Terence McKenna (for whom the real ancient astronauts were the Stropharia cubensis mushroom) derisively referred to this demographic as “menopausal mystics.” Although there is a lot that is unoriginal, deeply questionable, and by modern standards rather un-awe-inspiring in the Theosophists’ cosmological visions, there is also much of value in their writings—particularly if you are open minded to the idea of siddhis, psychic abilities, and human potential in general. And they certainly supplied plenty of cool and original ideas to a generation of sci-fi writers who were less fetishizing of technology and more open-minded about the future (and past) of consciousness than many present-day writers.
Wouldn’t it be strange, and sort of wonderful, if mankind’s real future in space turned out to more closely resemble the channeled revelations of an early 20th Century menopausal mystic than the promethean hi-tech visions of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, or Ridley Scott?
[Reposting this old post in honor of H.R. Giger, who has sadly passed away at age 74.]
There are countless artistic visions of the near and far future, obviously, in literature, film, art. Many are realistic. Many are cool. But few have had as much impact on my imagination as that of two painters, whose work has little in common but for a shared interest in what we might now call post- or transhumanity.
I’ve touched a little in previous posts on the organo-mechanical somethingscapes of H.R. Giger. Most famous for his design work on the movie Alien, Giger’s dark, sinister “biomechanoids” show a vision of a humanity that has descended (or ascended?) into a state of fascistic, sadomasochistic machine-eroticism, a complete merger of human and machine that is both violent and sexual.
I’m not sure if the painter thinks of his art as depicting the future exactly, but to me his paintings show us a distinctly plausible future governed by what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek (after the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan) calls “jouissance.” I hate invoking a pretentious foreign word, but there isn’t a good analogue in our language for the extreme agony-in-pleasure, or pleasurable agony, that Zizek considers to be the sort of Satanic lifeblood of human existence, boiling just under the surface. I can’t imagine a better representation of this notion than Giger’s world: Machines and humans interpenetrate each other, genitally, orally, anally; “humanity” has become a hivelike heaven-hell of painful pleasure. The eyes of the figures are turned up, white, frozen in a gaze that is very much like that of an addict, or someone in the midst of orgasm.
It’s a vision of future humans (or posthumans) as lotus-eaters. When technology gives us the ability to escape into pleasurable dreams, will we have any more will to transcend our condition or continue with the human adventure—culture, law, technology, commerce, and the rest? Lotus-eating, a total turning-inward, is a distinct and perhaps (from our perspective) unpleasant possibility. But who knows, the “great silence” that famously bothered physicist Enrico Fermi, the fact that no signs of distant intelligences have been discovered (I’m bracketing the question of UFOs for now), could be the result of an overriding tendency of civilizations to turn inward, losing all interest in the “outside.” Who knows, it could be the inevitable trajectory of technological races. Stanislaw Lem mentions this possibility in his novel Fiasco.
From the outside, an earth crisscrossed with Giger’s mechano-organic canyons (that’s how I imagine the steep looming walls within which his deathly gray figures are embedded or from which they protrude) would be uncommunicative and silent—sort of a dark, terrifying inversion of Lem’s masterpiece, Solaris. Solaris is a white, watery intelligence that spans a planet and appears innocent and curious, almost like a baby that is learning to mimic but still can’t quite talk. A black posthuman Giger-Earth would be the opposite: a dark seething bio-machine, uncommunicative like an addict, lost in orgasmic pleasure that is the exact opposite of innocence.
But there is another vision of the future that I find equally plausible and equally beautiful—another vague, enigmatic picture of Future Man, but one that is instead optimistic and expansive, having little in common with Giger’s claustrophobic gray canyons.
You probably have never heard of Richard Powers, but you’ve seen his work. His surrealistic illustrations adorn countless covers of pulp sci-fi paperbacks from the 50s and 60s and 70s. They are iconic of a kind of retro-future that, even though they had nothing to do with the stories inside—it was courageous of publishers like Ballantine to depart from literalism on their covers—would have provided a kind of imaginary backdrop to the early readers of writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Brian W. Aldiss, J.G. Ballard. Sculpted surrealistic cities rising from deserts, curved glass structures hanging in misty space, lithe glassy beings that are not quite human and not quite machine. (I think the compassionate far-future robots at the end of Spielberg’s A.I. were lifted directly from Powers’ work.)
Like Giger’s art, Powers’ book covers depict a future in which the boundaries of humanity, architecture, and machine have vanished. But these future men are not lotus-eaters. One senses in his cityscapes and landscapes a world that continues to be a world of technology and society and exploration, but is somehow wise in a way the present world is not. Wise and remote. Philosophical somehow, mostly peaceful (sometimes not). It is a vision of future humanity, post-humanity, still seeking, not enclosed in itself.
I love Powers’ inspiring surrealistic vision as much as I love the fascinating silver-black heaven-hell of Giger. Both artists created gorgeous worlds that you can get lost in. Both painted visions of our future that are poles apart.
Which path will we take as a civilization and as a species?
I’m fascinated by how aviation and missing planes are so often linked, in one way or another, to ESP phenomena. The ongoing, frustrating search for Malaysian Flight 370 seems like the perfect opportunity to write down some thoughts about this strange nexus.
There’s a long history of psychics being enlisted (or volunteering) to search for lost planes, for one thing. One of the best-known successes of the early operational remote viewing work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was the successful location of a lost Soviet spy plane in the African jungle using the talents of viewers Gary Langford and Rosemary Smith. The annals of remote viewing (as described in Jim Schnabel’s excellent history of the subject) include other successful searches for missing aircraft. At Fort Meade for example, Ken Bell accurately pinpointed the site of a military crash in Virginia (even getting the name of the mountain, “Bald Knob”). On another occasion, he successfully remote-viewed the burned wreckage of an American helicopter that had crashed high in the Andes in Peru, killing the crew.
So it is to be expected that today’s most accomplished remote viewers and other psychics are being recruited to search for the missing Malaysian jet. Uri Geller, quite naturally, says he has been asked by a “substantial figure” for help in the search. Geller is more famous for telekinetic and telepathic feats than for clairvoyance, but he made his fortune map-dowsing for mineral and oil deposits—a skill one would think is not too different from viewing lost objects at a distance. He has not pointed to an actual location for the presumably downed plane, that we know of. But according to The Anomalist, remote viewer extraordinaire Joe McMoneagle, one of the original Fort Meade team, has also been tasked in the search; he says he has “duly reported” his findings.
When scientific or military professionalism and rigor are not involved, psychic attempts to locate missing aircraft are, as one can imagine, often not only unsuccessful but even tragically misleading. In his thorough and riveting account of the Uruguayan rugby team lost in the Andes in 1972, Piers Paul Read documents the desperate families’ use of psychics to help in the search. A Belgian clairvoyant, Gerard Croiset Jr., was recruited, and although he described several specific details that ultimately proved accurate (such as a nearby sign reading “Danger” and the physical appearance of wreckage itself), he insisted the plane went down near a lake over 80 miles south of the crash site—resulting in much money, time, and effort being wasted searching in the wrong place.
The sad irony is that the first psychic consulted by parents of two of the lost boys, a dowser in a poor Montevideo neighborhood, turned out to have precisely pinpointed the location of the downed plane. Unfortunately the area he picked had already been overflown on early search flights and was, in any event, deemed too dangerous and remote for further searching. (Read’s book Alive contains more tantalizing ESP-related tidbits, including accurate premonitions of imminent rescue by some of the survivors; the more recent documentary Stranded includes survivors’ fascinating accounts of their near-death experiences during an avalanche that struck 16 days into their ordeal and killed 8 of their companions.)
Then of course there’s Amelia Earhart.
When Earhart went missing in her Lockheed Electra in 1937, her husband George Palmer Putnam was inundated with mail from psychics and others who insisted they knew where Earhart’s plane had gone down, had had dreams of her, or had actually communicated with her psychically in the days and weeks following the disappearance. A 1940 article in Popular Aviation, which has been made available as a pdf on the Earhart Project website, is a great read and another fascinating account of the paranormal giving hope to those desperate to find their loved ones but also hopelessly muddying the waters of an investigation of a lost flight.
The Popular Aviation article only details a few of the examples of the messages Putnam received, unfortunately, but the ones described are particularly interesting in light of the unfolding (but lately stalled due to legal problems) efforts of the The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) to piece together Earhart’s last days and recover remains of the Electra. From what one can glean from the 1940 article, psychic consensus seemed to be that she and her navigator Fred Noonan went down somewhere north of Howland Island—not south, in the direction of Nikumaroro atoll, where TIGHAR has found tantalizing evidence that the flyers actually ended up. However, people who corresponded with Putnam said that they knew she had survived the crash and was on an island or atoll, and provided scenes that correspond to the picture being assembled by TIGHAR—that the famed aviatrix and her companion survived, possibly for a few weeks, before perishing (probably from dehydration).
An interesting angle in this case is that Earhart herself was an accomplished psychic—although she publicly downplayed her talents in an era that was just as rationalistic and skeptical as ours. She had a particular knack for finding missing aircraft. As described by two newspaper columnists quoted by David K Bowman:
“Officials at first were inclined to laugh at Miss Earhart’s psychic messages. But her accuracy now has them mystified. When a United Airlines plane was lost just outside of Burbank, Calif. Dec. 27, Miss Earhart called the United Airlines office and told them to look on a hill near Saugus, a little town north of Burbank.
“There the wreckage was found.
“Again when the Western Air Express plane carrying Mr. and Mrs. Martin Johnson crashed Jan. 12, Miss Earhart reported the plane to be near Newhall, 15 miles north of Burbank, where it was found.
“In the earlier crash of the Western Air Express in Utah, Miss Earhart had a vision to the effect that the bodies of the dead had been robbed by a trapper. Two days later, a trapper near Salt Lake City reported finding the wreckage, but then suddenly disappeared without giving the location of the plane.”
There seems to be a link between a penchant for real-world flying and psychic aviation. For example, decades after his historic trans-Atlantic solo flight, Charles Lindbergh admitted in a memoir that during the 33-hour journey, during which he did not dare actually fall asleep, he experienced a hypnagogic, dissociative state in which he felt his body, soul, and spirit separate—what we might now call an out-of-body experience. During this experience, the flyer perceived and communicated with angelic beings accompanying him in his plane. The encounter left him with a lasting interest in the afterlife and immortality.
A more recent example is the popular author and aviator Richard Bach. After the CIA withdrew funding from the SRI project in the late 1970s (wanting to distance itself from questionable research in the aftermath of revelations about MK-ULTRA and other projects), Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ became increasingly creative in seeking support for their research at SRI. One person they sought out for possible help was Bach, whose bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull seemed (to Targ at least) like an account of an out-of-body experience—a phenomenon with strong continuity with remote viewing. On the hunch that Bach might be interested to participate in some psychic research himself and perhaps give some money to SRI, Targ and Puthoff invited Bach to California to take part in some experiments.
The writer proved quite talented. For example, in one out-bounder experiment described in Targ and Puthoff’s book Mind-Reach, he gave a very accurate physical description of the interior of a modern A-frame Methodist church and its altar—although in a case of “analytical overlay” biasing his interpretation, Bach thought the altar with the cross behind it looked like (appropriately enough) an airport ticket counter with a fleur-de-lis airline logo. Jacques Vallee, SRI Arpanet pioneer and friend to the remote viewing program, describes in his journals that he arranged to have a computer terminal installed in Bach’s Florida home, where Bach participated in a networked, cross-country remote viewing experiment in which he was remarkably accurate in describing an assortment of minerals chosen by a geologist.
The longest-distance psychic experiment ever conducted by an aviator, or anybody, is no-doubt that conducted by astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell aboard Apollo 14 in 1971. Like previous aviation pioneers, Mitchell had a profound mystical experience during his journey; but quite apart from this, he had a longstanding interest in ESP and, at four predetermined times during the mission, telepathically transmitted randomly selected Zener symbols (the type used in the classic Rhine experiments) to a small group of psychics back on Earth. He reported that there were 51 correct responses out of 200 total—slightly better than chance (there are 5 symbols in a Zener deck, so 40 correct responses would be predicted by chance). It is typical of the interesting but rather uninspiring positive results produced by classical psi research before the SRI era.
The great precedent for Mitchell’s long-distance telepathy experiment, however, is far more inspiring. In 1938, a dashing, larger-than-life aviator and all-around hero explorer, Sir George Hubert Wilkins (left), volunteered on a dangerous mission to the arctic to search for a lost Russian plane and hopefully rescue the crew. Before he departed, he arranged to mentally send updates of his adventure at regular times each week to a New York writer with an interest in ESP named Harold M. Sherman. Sherman, for his part, recorded his impressions and had them notarized to prove that no cheating had transpired. Wilkins and Sherman documented the results in their classic book Thoughts Through Space.
The records of Sherman’s and Wilkin’s experiment are remarkable, and resemble the sometimes astonishing accuracy of later CIA and military clairvoyants when real-world events and locales, rather than boring randomly generated cards, are involved. Reading the book through the lens of hindsight, it becomes clear—as it even became clear to the participants themselves when Sherman’s impressions were checked against Wilkins’ periodic bulletins—that “thoughts through space” did not accurately characterize the signal line through which Sherman received his information. Wilkins admitted he was often too busy, or simply forgot, to send his mental messages at the appointed times, but this did not prevent Sherman from obtaining detailed, usually accurate impressions of Wilkins’ activities and whereabouts.
In other words, Sherman was engaged precisely in remote viewing, not telepathy or (to use Upton Sinclair’s term) “mental radio.” Had it occurred to either of the experimenters to have Sherman psychically search for the missing Russian plane himself and thus serve as Wilkins’ guide rather than just his remote “receiver,” Wilkins’ mission may have been more successful than it was—but that would have required a paradigm shift in parapsychological thinking that was still over three decades off.
The experiment with Sherman is, to my knowledge, the first and last time Wilkins participated in an ESP experiment. Sherman, however, went on to write several interesting popular guides to developing ESP powers, not to mention numerous pulp sci-fi novels. In fact, he is a strangely absent figure in the nexus of psychic abilities, human potential, and sci-fi so densely chronicled by Jeffrey Kripal in his great book Mutants and Mystics.
In any case, there seems to be something fascinatingly archetypal about this nexus of aviation and ESP. Flying through air and space—and the extreme lengths to which one can get lost doing so—seem almost like a hieroglyph, in mundane 4-D reality, of how far one can travel and also get lost in the dimensionless space of consciousness and psychic abilities (or dis-abilities). Time will tell if and how this archetype plays out in the story of Flight 370. As The Anomalist notes, there may be little hope of anyone’s (even Geller’s or McMoneagle’s) ESP-derived insights having an impact on that search, given that there are bound to be hundreds or more intuitives, psychics, remote viewers, etc. giving their own conflicting reports. If I were one of the “authorities” involved, this is one reason I would be cautious following leads obtained from the paranormal information superhighway, however tantalizing they may be.
Postscript: Wilkins, The Nautilus, and SRI
Oddly enough, it is through an interesting mix of coincidence and distorted memory that Wilkins’ and Sherman’s Thoughts Through Space experiment may have had a decisive influence on the later research at SRI and the whole history of remote viewing.
According to Jim Schnabel, a 1960 report in the French magazine Science et Vie claimed that the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus had conducted a telepathy experiment on its historic voyage under the North Pole in 1958. Upon closer scrutiny, the claim proved to have been either fraudulent or based on fabricated information, but nevertheless it spurred anxiety on the part of the Soviets that the United States was developing psychic abilities for military application, and they began pouring money into paranormal research. It was this development, reported in Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain in 1970, that in turn triggered anxiety in US intelligence and military circles that we may lose the psychic arms race if we didn’t fund such research ourselves. Hence SRI, and the subsequent developments at Ft Meade and elsewhere.
According to Schnabel, the source of the Science et Vie story that started the false rumor of US psychic research in the 1950s is unknown—it was either a hoax or may have been a deliberate disinformation ploy to get the Soviets to waste their money on paranormal woo. But I suspect the story could actually have arisen from a more innocent case of distorted recollection by someone involved in the magazine article or their sources, because it involves a fascinating, tangled knot of coincidences.
Several years before his 1938 arctic aviation expedition with its telepathy component, Wilkins had himself attempted to reach the North Pole underwater, in a decommissioned American submarine O-12 that he had leased from the Navy and rechristened, wait for it, The Nautilus. I think it would have been all too easy for someone to later conflate the various adventures of this dashing polar explorer (who sometimes engaged in telepathy experiments) with the news of the first actual polar crossing by a (this time nuclear) submarine, also named Nautilus, in 1958.
To make things more confusing, the nuclear Nautilus‘s first commander was named … Wilkinson.
Rich Reynolds has a nice piece over on UFO Iconoclast comparing ufology to Samuel Beckett’s existentialist play Waiting for Godot. It’s a really apt comparison: The two main characters wait around for a person who is never going to come, and this waiting keeps them from becoming fully conscious and responsible for their lives.
A similar comparison I would make is to practically everything by Kafka. Ufology is murky, increasingly maddening, and you are perpetually unclear where you stand; you seem to be on the brink of figuring out some piece of the puzzle, and then you realize you are at the back of a line of aging people who have been standing in that same line their whole life, clutching essentially the same speculations in their dusty binders and briefcases, still awaiting confirmation from some authority that they have made progress though they have essentially gotten nowhere.
The whole idea of “disclosure,” particularly, reminds me of the central parable of The Trial. A man from the country comes before the Door of the Law, wanting access, but he is stopped by a doorkeeper who makes him wait, although not without accepting bribes “just so you don’t feel you’ve left anything untried.” The man waits his whole life, and finally, as he’s about to die, he finally asks the doorkeeper, “Why, if this is the Door of the Law, has no one else come seeking entry all this time?” To which the doorkeeper says, “Because this door was meant for you alone. I’m now going to shut it.” A brilliant light shines from deep within the edifice as the door is shut.
I see it as a sort of Gnostic lesson having to do with experience versus faith. The only important knowledge is experiential self-knowledge, and it can’t be thought of as coming from outside oneself, in the form of a religious or secular authority (such as the government, the UFOs themselves, or any other “subject presumed to know”—to borrow a term from psychoanalysis). You’ll get nowhere until you include the knower (you, the man from the country) in the known; the door, the light shining through it, and even the doorkeeper and especially the man himself are all part of the same picture.
I suspect that, when it comes to UFOs, what we need to know is already right in front of us, and the whole scene of “authorities keeping knowledge from us” is a bit of self-parody within a larger riddle (or koan) addressed to us, not the thing keeping us from cracking it.
We need to recognize ourselves as knowers. Dwelling on the idea that truth is “out there” is a way we overlook that explosive gnosis until it is too late.
The emptiness of Fermi’s Paradox as an argument against ETs rests, I think, on the unlikelihood that advanced technological civilizations would ever explore or colonize their universe in the flesh. I’ve suggested here that the “reach” of ETs through space, and that of our own human or machine descendents, will be via Von Neumann probes gathering and collecting potentially infinite amounts of information for use and enjoyment back home. But there are other, not incompatible possibilities that, if we are to be suitably broad minded, we should also consider. These possibilities rest on a series of very big “ifs,” admittedly, but they are worthwhile (and way fun) to think about.
One of these ifs—which actually seems to be becoming less controversial in our day—is ESP. As outrageous as it remains to committed materialists—and I’ll admit it didn’t settle well with me either until I started paying serious attention to the literature—there is ample experimental evidence (quite apart from ample testimony of psychonauts and mystics since time immemorial) that knowledge may indeed transcend apparent limitations of matter, space, and time. According to a few serious scientific thinkers on this topic like Russell Targ and Dean Radin, consciousness is nonlocal. The CIA-funded remote viewing research of the 1970s and 80s at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), for instance, shows that distance is no obstacle for talented clairvoyants; the experiments conducted at SRI by Targ and Hal Puthoff clearly indicate that Psi effects don’t obey an inverse square law like electromagnetic radiation or any other known physical force. Skilled remote viewers seem to be able to accurately view targets on the other side of the planet or within an electromagnetically sealed chamber as readily as they can view something in a sealed envelope in the same room.
According to a former Congressional Aide interviewed by filmmaker Vikram Jayanti for a new, fascinating BBC documentary on Uri Geller’s spy work for the CIA and other intelligence agencies, the research made famous by Targ and Puthoff and project Star Gate continues now, but in the “deep, deep black”—interestingly enough, having been driven into the underground not because it was scandalous to mainstream science but because it conflicted with the Fundamentalist Christian theology of certain defense higherups in the 1980s and 90s. One wonders whether, decades later, this “deep black” research is still confined to remote viewing terrestrial targets?
Pat Price, the star remote viewer in Targ and Puthoff’s research at SRI, commented that he was “potentially omniscient in space and time” (see Targ and Puthoff’s Mind-Reach). And famously in the annals of remote viewing, psychic Ingo Swann, while at SRI, viewed the rings of Jupiter before they were discovered by the Pioneer 10 probe; and according to his bizarre memoir Penetration, he psychically saw structures on the moon similar to those allegedly photographed by the Apollo missions and that serve as fodder for various space anomaly websites. Whether or not Swann was accurate in the latter moon observations, Swann seems to have been the first to seriously attempt psychic astronautics in modern times—although mystics in the past such as Emanuel Swedenborg have also claimed to visit other worlds and communicate with their inhabitants.
Picture a room full of highly trained Ingo Swanns, given coordinates for one of the habitable-zone super-earths around Gliese 667c to image; each one receives the same coordinates, and from their collective viewings a rough consensus is reached about that sector’s topographic features or interesting biology (if any); then they move onto the next coordinates, ultimately creating a rough map of the whole planet; then they move on to the next planet … and so on. Is this the future of space exploration? Are such projects already being conducted in secret by government contractors or by NASA itself?
And by extension, could an ET psychic space program be behind many close encounters?
Encounters with “aliens” (or whatever they are) frequently have a psychic component, as Jacques Vallee has always stressed. That alien intelligences interact with humans psychically is a common theme also in the sci-fi and comic book collective unconscious, as Jeffrey Kripal has shown in his book Mutants and Mystics and as Christopher Loring Knowles has described on his phenomenally interesting blog The Secret Sun.
There is also the vast, weirdly consistent literature on experiences with Ayahuasca, Psilocybin, and other DMT-based entheogens: Users of these drugs consistently encounter alien beings that resemble those familiar from the UFO literature and/or enter a realm seething with alien intelligence. DMT researcher Rick Strassman has argued that the resemblance of DMT experiences to UFO abductions may not be a coincidence. The easy, respectably materialist position here is that of course it’s not a coincidence: It’s all in the drug-user’s (or contactee’s) head. But Strassman himself remains open-minded that the reality could be something more interesting and complex—that the intelligences might be authentic and that DMT may be facilitating access with the noetic realm or wavelength where they reside or through which they attempt to interact with us.
Abduction experiences with and without the use of drugs point to at least the possibility of alien psychic astronauts visiting us in the comfort of our living rooms, from the comfort of their living rooms, via a sort of cosmic noetic superhighway—which may be the same thing as the Nous of Gnostic and Hermetic mysticism or the Akasha of the Theosophical writings. Psilocybin prophet Terence McKenna, who routinely encountered alien-like “machine elves” (and whose Amazonia experience in 1971 vividly foreshadowed many of the extraterrestrial Gnostic themes and insights of Phillip K. Dick’s “2-3-74″ experience a couple years later) would certainly agree with this idea; he suggested that Stropharia cubensis mushrooms may themselves be a plant-based ET colonization project, spores traveling through space and creating nodes in what we might now call an Astral Internet.
Think Nonlocally, Act Remotely
The notion of a nonlocal universe has also been called the “holographic universe” because any small fragment of a holograph contains the whole within it. Psi experiences are a scientific (though committed skeptics will always call them pseudoscientific) idiom for describing experiences of a realm that elsewhere and in other times have been called sacred or mystical, and there seems to be considerable overlap between these sorts of telepathic or clairvoyant capacities and other seemingly more farfetched experiences like astral projection or out-of-body (OOB) travel.
The latter phenomena are to my knowledge less well documented scientifically (except in the controversial near-death-experience literature), but they are equally well-assented by thousands of years of anecdotal accounts by yogis, shamans, and ordinary “gifted” individuals. The Theosophic tradition refers to travel in the Astral Plane, although it is quite possible that such experiences are really the same thing as lucid dreams and that the dreamer is misinterpreting the experience in “real space” terms; yet in a nonlocal universe that distinction shouldn’t affect whether such altered states (and others like hypnagogia) give access to real information about distant places or events yet to come. Probably a future theory of nonlocal noetic physics would need to abandon spacial metaphors like “plane” altogether, because space and time have no meaning in such a realm or dimension. (Even “dimension” is problematic because it implies extension and measure, like the other dimensions we are familiar with.)
Nonlocal consciousness is often explained by quantum entanglement—the “spooky action at a distance” that enables bound particles to somehow share information over great distances instantaneously (much faster than light speed). It has been suggested that the brain is itself a quantum computer, and that the real action is happening at the sub-neuronal level, in microtubules within neurons that are narrow enough for quantum effects to come into play. Another (maybe compatible) explanation that I favor would be the Buddhist one: that awareness is the fundamental field or ground of being, and that physical laws rest on it, not the other way around; thus our material brains and sense organs are a kind of filter (or as philosopher Henri Bergson put it, a “reducing valve”) of consciousness, not its generator.
Whatever the case, if nonlocality is the reality, then all points in space and time potentially coincide in consciousness. All points in space and time are equally close, equally “right here,” and perceiving things physically or temporally distant may just require an alteration or retuning of consciousness on the analogy of a radio receiver. The problem becomes one of locating the desired information, and in fact it was Jacques Vallee himself who, on the analogy of the way information is localized and accessed in computer databases, gave Swann the idea for using the arbitrary system of geographical coordinates, which became central to the protocol of coordinate remote viewing (CRV).
It certainly would solve certain standard hurdles of “spaceflight” if a highly trained (or highly evolved) psychic astronaut could actually interact noetically with places that are physically very distant, and it also adds new and very interesting wrinkles. While clairvoyant astronautics may enable rough surveillance of a distant locale, simply traveling in one’s head a la Swann or Swedenborg fails to satisfy our human need to go somewhere in the flesh, to step out onto the surface of a remote world, feel it under our feet, see it with our eyes, smell the air, interact with its animals and plants and, maybe, contact its intelligent beings on their own terms. Indeed, some kind of direct tangible information is also needed to provide feedback on the intuitions of the remote viewer; remote viewing requires verification.
This limitation—actual physical interaction—would seem to be the deal-breaker when it comes to full-blown psychic exploration of the universe. Or is it? Is there a way nonlocal consciousness could interact physically with a remote location?
The possibility of remote mental interaction with matter via telekinesis, first of all, is supported by limited but provocative accounts of feats by Swann, Geller, and others in the SRI studies as well as alleged achievements by psychic spies—including Geller, who we now know was employed by the CIA and other spy agencies not only to remote view but also to physically disable enemy electronic hardware and magnetic disks (according to Jayanti’s documentary and a companion book by Jonathan Margolis). If these things are indeed possible, then we cannot readily discount the feats of yogis and other Eastern adepts (e.g., the creation of tulpas) or achievements described in the OOB and astral-projection literature. OOB-ers have described accounts of target individuals and even third parties seeing and interacting (even sexually!) with them. Consistent with such a notion, some alien encounters seem like interactions with nonmaterial, ectoplasmic, “astrally projected” entities, suggesting that perhaps this is indeed the mode of “space travel” for ET explorers (again, on the assumption that they are from other worlds—but if this sort of interaction were possible, it really wouldn’t make any difference where, or when, they come from).
Taking the Wheel
However, if we grant the possibility of remote psychic connection between humans and ETs (a big “if,” I still grant), then another possibility we are forced to consider is that of a psychic astronaut actually inhabiting and taking control of the physical body of a being at the destination planet. If minds at that location can be interacted with, communicated with, or manipulated telepathically, then it is also conceivable they could be overridden to provide local host vessels or vehicles for the nonlocal consciousness of the physically remote “traveler.” Any respectable shaman would certainly assent to such a possibility; the idea of spirit possession has a long history in many cultures. I can’t imagine such a possibility having been studied in a modern laboratory, yet it seems that if telepathy is granted, it should be theoretically possible for a highly trained or at least highly evolved psychic being to not just give ideas to a target or manipulate their behavior indirectly (i.e. through altering their perceptions or inducing life-altering experiences—the Vallee “control system” idea), but to actually sit in the driver’s seat.
Who knows what the technical requirements are for a consciousness to be able to physically inhabit a new, different body—perhaps this is a hurdle only achievable by more advanced beings, or perhaps there is a trick to it that human psychics will eventually discover and be able to teach their colleagues. Maybe our secret psychic astronauts will figure out the trick by adapting techniques in the Tibetan Book of the Dead for locating and inhabiting a new embryo—in other words, jailbreaking or hacking the cosmic reincarnation system to have it work on adults. (Incidentally, the more I think about this stuff, the more I wish David Lynch’s Twin Peaks hadn’t jumped the shark and ended after its second season, as it had actually begun to explore precisely this nexus between UFOs, spirit possession, and the afterlife—or the “Bardo” state between incarnations.)
Even if advanced psychic astronauts cannot quite manage the feat of possessing a willful alien species such as ourselves, they could still perhaps manipulate their contactees to do the necessary physical work of creating an entity that is more malleable or susceptible to serving as a host vessel. Such a project might involve a long-term breeding program, or else the manufacture of something like “bio-androids.” (Can you see where this is going?)
From the point of view of a hypothetical observer at the destination planet (of course, actual contactees would likely not figure out what was going on or would be on a need-to-know basis), it would be the kind of project that would unfold over hundreds, thousands, or maybe even millions of years (if we imagine, as various authors have suggested, that our very species or even our biosphere has been the subject of manipulation with a goal like alien colonization in mind). But remember: Nonlocality applies to time as well as space. This means that an ET project to cultivate our civilization to create for it the needed biological or bio-android substrate for their physical incarnation could take no time at all from the point of view of the alien psychic astronaut. A single alien astronaut could visit and interact with humans at different time points, encouraging this or that mating at various points down the line, and so on, all in a day’s work (so to speak). In other words, we need not imagine ancient immortal eminences with infinite patience engaging in such a project—they could be relatively flesh-and-blood, mortal schlubs like ourselves, just with better psychic abilities.
Both of the scenarios I’ve mentioned—directly possessing local organisms as hosts and directing or manipulating them to breed or construct avatars—seem consistent with themes in the close encounter and alien abduction literature, including the obsession with breeding and hybridization. In fact, it would make a lot of sense of many aspects of that literature that led Mac Tonnies to propose a “cryptoterrestrial” origin for UFOs, such as the fact that UFO technologies (airships, flying saucers, etc.) sometimes seem weirdly close to our own—like always just a generation or two ahead of officially available technology. If ET souls travel among us in specially bred bodies and fly around in technology built locally to their specifications by secretive human “contractors,” then their technology will be constrained by what can be achievable locally even if the ideas behind it are more advanced. It would explain why saucers sometimes crash—something I feel sure an actual space vehicle sent across the void by an advanced civilization would not do. Such a history of human contracting for ET clients could go back centuries or millennia—to ancient Egypt or Sumer, for example—and be equivalent to a long-duration version of Richard Dolan’s “breakaway civilizations” concept.
Dolan has suggested that the U.S. government is no longer where it’s at, in terms of UFO knowledge—that much of the information has been spun off into the private sector. Who knows what kind of complex relationship secret military contractors and their guild analogues in the past have had with alien beings or their indigenous contactee proxies; maybe those secretive contractors or guilds are and have always been the real players shaping our “exopolitical” future. (If so, there is little hope of getting answers from them about the UFO reality via the ever-breathlessly-anticipated “disclosure,” as there are no Constitutions stipulating that private firms are answerable to the public.)
There have been clues dropped over the years by those in the know that the UFO problem is linked to psychic phenomena, and one of the juicy clues comes right from a higherup at one of those defense contractors. In 1993, when he was dying of cancer, Ben Rich, former director of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” reportedly raised eyebrows by mentioning in a lecture to invited engineering alumni at UCLA that “we already have the technology to take ET home.” As Rich was leaving the lecture, Jan Harzan (now the head of MUFON), chased him down to probe him further: “I have a real interest in the propulsion you are talking about that gets us to the stars,” he said. “Can you tell me how it works?” According to Harzan, Rich stopped and obscurely asked Harzan if he knew how ESP worked. Taken aback, Harzan said “I don’t know, all points in space and time are connected?” To which Rich said, “That’s how it works.”
The nuts-and-bolts-minded may assume that, if there’s truth to this story, then what Rich meant was some kind of quantum technology—leading perhaps to a picture of physical vehicles capable of teleporting through space—or else the use of an exotic material with negative mass capable of traveling near lightspeed by ignoring the local inertial frame (as John Mike suggests in his book The Anatomy of a Flying Saucer). In his lecture, Rich did indicate that the answer lay in certain “errors” that had been discovered in physical equations, and he hinted his shop had indeed been building home-grown UFOs, so perhaps this is what he meant. But what if the UFO propulsion question is slightly distinct from the nonlocality question? What if interstellar travel occurs via psychic contact aimed at creating biological and material infrastructure using local contracted labor? What if local contractors like Lockheed itself are actually building advanced flying machines not only on behalf of our government but on behalf of ET intelligences, who communicate via psychic intermediaries or even locally bred hybrid beings (Men in Black? Grays?), for the purpose of more conventional, physical interaction with us or our planet?
Are Ancient Astronauts Alive and Well?
One argument against the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) for UFOs and even against the SETI project is the problem of extreme technological and social nonsimultaneity of civilizations throughout the galaxy—that evolutionary, technological, and cultural parity between any two civilizations would be extremely unlikely. Recently George Dvorsky ran new numbers through the Drake Equation and arrived at a very modest .58 to 5 contemporaneous radio-communicating civilizations in our galaxy, making any contact with somebody else anywhere near us on the technological spectrum extremely unlikely.
But again, given that nonlocality means collapsing both temporal distance and spatial distance, psychic astronautics potentially opens the door to interaction with other intelligences across the whole universe, across its entire lifespan. If ETs can “astrally travel” across space, they can do so across time as well (and we know that, from the fundamental standpoint of light, there is no difference between the two). Thus the aliens (again, if that is what they are) encountered by humans now could just as easily be from our distant past (or, for that matter, from our distant future) as from the present. Some could even represent the original Dawn Civilizations that emerged when the universe first became cool enough to support life as we know it—the ones that mathematical models say should have long ago colonized our galaxy. Well, maybe they have colonized it, in a sense—maybe they did and still are colonizing it, but not in physical ships, and in a “slow from our point of view but fast for them” way that depends on the emergence of technological civilizations locally to make machines and bodies on their behalf.
If we actually visited those ancient psychic astronauts’ homeworld “now,” we might find them, their civilization, even their planet and star, long dead and gone, yet they would still appear throughout space and time, going about business conducted billions of years ago. Perhaps it is even those civilizations’ distant “post-human,” nonsentient, non-psychic technological descendents that visit us in mundane 4-D space as Von Neumann probes. (Or, who knows, maybe those probes provide, among other things, the concrete feedback required for ET remote viewers back on their homeworlds.)
Whatever the case, when we start multiplying the number of potential civilizations that have emerged and will emerge by the possibilities of spacial and temporal nonlocality, the bizarre variety and absurd inconsistency in UFO encounters begins to seem a bit more reasonable, and the Drake Equation (as now written) becomes meaningless.
Somewhere Terence McKenna suggested that when we finally travel to other planets, it will probably take less power than a flashlight battery. If psi abilities do exist and can be developed to the extent yogis have always asserted—a very big but also a very interesting if—then those abilities, not “ships through space” carrying our physical mortal bodies, are probably our ticket to the stars. One day Earth’s psychic interstellar explorers may look back on our concept art of solar sails and Bussard ramjets and Alcubierre-drive starships the way we look back on DaVinci’s flying corkscrew.
Postscript: The always fascinating Jacques Vallee turns out to have lots of great insight into scientific remote viewing research. The phenomenal Forbidden Science, Volume Two (his journals covering the 1970s, when he was at SRI working on the Arpanet) is a goldmine of great behind-the-scenes stories about the SRI remote-viewing research, Swann, Geller, the involvement of the CIA (which he clearly had to keep silent about until its declassification), the intersection of ESP with his better-known interests like UFOs and computer networks, and just generally Vallee’s thoughtful, bemused reactions to the surreally science-fictional California of the 1970s. It’s my second-favorite Vallee book after The Invisible College, which was written during the same weird, incredible decade.
We are within perhaps a decade of creating computers that match and perhaps even dwarf the human brain in computing power, and that are capable of complex computations that may include something like reasoning and even a notion of self—what many would therefore consider to be autonomous, conscious machines.
When we contemplate this, most of us still have Skynet of the Terminator movies lurking in the back of our minds, and so the question that generally gets asked is whether such machines will eventually decide we are a nuisance and destroy or enslave us. Artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Hugo de Garis rather apocalyptically predicted that the question “Should we build them?” will so profoundly divide humans in the second half of the 21st century that it will result in a calamitous conflict that kills billions—what he calls an “artilect war” (artilect being his term for artificial intellect).
“Should we build them?” is not the right question to ask. For one thing, it is pointless. The whole history of our relation to technology shows that if the capability to build something and use it exists, it will be built and used (if necessary, in secret). In any case, as with many other advances, the same technological developments that threaten humanity could give us the tools to protect against those threats; technology has its self-balancing, homeostatic mechanisms, like everything else.
But obviously, we need to enter the new world of AI prepared. To do that, we need to ask much more fundamental questions about mind and consciousness than most non-scientists are used to asking: specifically, how, when, and crucially if key aspects of mind, such as consciousness or feelings, can actually arise from material structures, be they man-made circuits or organic brains. If any computer-related question ends up polarizing us in the second half of this century, this one—what philosophers like to call the “hard problem” of how consciousness is produced by a brain—is likely to be it.
So instead of “Should we build them?”, a more pressing question we should be prepared to answer is, “Should we believe them?”—that is, believe computers that claim to be or act like they are conscious, and believe their inventors that consciousness is nothing more than computations performed by a machine. To many outside the scientific community, it is not self-evident that even the biological machine in our heads can accomplish that feat.
The Hard Problem
The human brain is the most complex physical structure known, having by some estimates more potential synaptic connections than there are atoms in the universe, and able to store something like 10 to the power of 20 bits of information. To create an artificial, humanlike or superhuman intellect surely requires extraordinary processing power to match or approximate this, and Singularity prophets tend to focus on surmounting this specific challenge (perhaps through quantum computing) when imagining building machines that approach some humanlike threshold. Yet what exactly will that threshold be?
“Intelligence” is a vague term that encompasses both the ability to manage large quantities of information and the ability to think and reason and solve problems, and often this latter notion gets lumped in with other human attributes such as feeling, self-awareness, free will, and so on. But even on those terms there is not much agreement how to define them, let alone what they really are. “Consciousness” is generally used as a catch-all term, replacing the old theologically and supernaturally loaded term “soul.” Before we can ever evaluate the intelligence or consciousness of a machine, we need to understand what we are talking about when we talk about our own, human consciousness.
As good a place to start as any in considering consciousness is neuroscientist Michael Graziano’s excellent new book Consciousness and the Social Brain. Along with most neuroscientists, Graziano holds to a strictly materialistic, mechanistic view and rejects the position that there is anything fundamentally mysterious or unknowable about consciousness—it is a soluble problem, and the answer is to be found entirely in neural computation. However, while some neuroscientists attacking the question of consciousness over the last couple of decades have tended to argue that consciousness is somehow an illusion, that it serves no real function, or that we are just spectators to our lives without any real autonomy, Graziano has a more positive take. Consciousness, he argues, actually is a kind of simplified mental model of attention—our own attention and, even more importantly, the attention of others we interact with. We hold in our brains what he calls an “attention schema,” rather like a battlefield map, that helps us track the shifting, fluid changes in attention that are necessary to look after our interests and assert our will in a complex social world.
Such a schema gives rise to a notion that this thing the brain is monitoring—attention—is a kind of substance or radiation; on some level, we think of attention as something like rays coming out the eyes of other people (and animals), showing what they are attending to in the moment. This radiation doesn’t really exist—it is a kind of necessary superstition that helps us track this complex focused awareness of others and ourselves. And like other hardwired brain shortcuts and heuristics, it can be tricked in certain circumstances, and we can be induced to attribute attentional awareness to inanimate objects. This is why part of us so readily attributes consciousness to things like ventriloquist dummies, even when our forebrains know better, or why a billboard with a pair of painted eyes will reduce bicycle theft in the street below. The more ancient, metaphysical, and everyday understandings of consciousness as some kind of “thing” that could perhaps be located somewhere in the head reflects a more elaborate version of this same superstition, according to Graziano.
It’s an elegant and persuasive theory, as far as it goes. Yet, as Michael Hanlon recently pointed out in the pages of Aeon Magazine, Graziano and other bold materialists still can’t, and will never be able to, marshal neuroscientific evidence to account for what it is like to be an aware, thinking being—that is, not merely thinking that I exist and am aware, but actually sitting here feeling or experiencing that thought, indeed feeling or experiencing anything at all.
This philosophical position is sometimes called Mysterianism: Mysterians do not believe that consciousness can be completely reduced to or explained by brain processes. Even if certain components of consciousness, such as reflexivity, sense of self, or the attention-monitoring that Graziano describes can be explained as the outcome of computations in the cortex (and thus could theoretically be achieved by computers), there remains this more basic phenomenological fact of experience and awareness, the feeling-ground of being.
This ground is so basic, subtle, and pervasive that it is generally overlooked and eludes verbal description. Aristotle called it the “common sense” and he likened it to a kind of internal touch (Daniel Heller-Roazen’s fascinating, entertaining book, The Inner Touch charts the history of this idea through philosophy and literature). Because of its felt, qualitative nature, philosophers have used the term “qualia” to describe it, but I’ll stick for consistency with the term sentience—that is, the capability of sensing.
Mysterianism and Sentience
Although many writers conflate sentience with consciousness or self-awareness, sentience is arguably a much broader and also much more basic quality of mind, which is often attributed widely to animals as well as humans. Some higher primates, cetaceans, and birds possess self-awareness and are able to recognize themselves in a mirror, but even animals without that capability seem to experience their lives sentiently (although ultimately it comes down to a matter of faith or attribution, since we can’t actually get inside their heads, any more than we can get inside each other’s heads).
But while it is easy for most people to attribute sentience to animals by analogy with our own lived experience, we have little precedent, thus far, in attributing it to mechanical devices, and the idea of machines feeling or experiencing the way we do is considerably more problematic than that of machines possessing “higher” computational functions like self-awareness.
Since conscious thoughts are something experienced, Mysterians intuit that our higher, human capacities such as self-reflection are built somehow of the building block of sentience. And here is the crux of the “hard” problem: There is no way to derive sentience as such from brain processes. We know from centuries of philosophical scolding not to commit the homuncular fallacy, of seeking for a little experiencer somewhere in the head—such as the Pineal gland—because that just defers answering the question (i.e., “Then what part of the Pineal gland feels?…”). But how then does experience or feeling arise? Are nerve cell firings “felt”? Are the chemical interactions in synapses “felt”? What differentiates feeling from a simple computation that could be performed as well in a pocket calculator as in a brain?
It could be supposed that sentience is the cumulative product of millions of simultaneous cellular events throughout the brain, rather the same way a TV picture is composed of many tiny insignificant pixels that at any given moment form a coherent image. But if tiny cellular interactions are somehow felt or are the rudiments of feeling, then such rudimentary feeling should potentially exist in inanimate objects too, because in principle there seems to be nothing different between an electrical discharge in a neuron and one in a flashlight or a microwave oven. And chemical interactions like those occurring between neurotransmitters and receptors in my synapses occur constantly everywhere throughout nature; are those also felt by someone, somewhere? If sentience is a peculiar property of the form or pattern of these electrical or chemical interactions, then what is it about such a form that makes it stand out in the universe as something experienced?
Or to turn it around, why does neural activity in the human brain not simply produce unfeeling mechanical behavior? As Hanlon puts it, “One can imagine a creature behaving exactly like a human — walking, talking, running away from danger, mating and telling jokes — with absolutely no internal mental life. Such a creature would be, in the philosophical jargon, a zombie.” I know I am not a zombie, and I suspect you, reading this on your computer screen, aren’t. But why aren’t we zombies? Why is there awareness of anything in the Cosmos, rather than a blind idiot clockwork that nobody knows about or needs to know? Saying sentience is an illusion and an attribution sidesteps the problem: The very fact of being aware at all is what we are talking about, and this problem is neither an illusion nor is it reducible to any kind of causal explanation—it is the most silent yet self-evident given there is.
The question of sentience is really nothing more than a permutation of the most basic philosophical question: Why is there something and not nothing? The more limited (and machine-achievable) notion of self-awareness could be imagined as a mechanistic computation without there being a feeling-sensation attached to it. A zombie could monitor its own actions and thus possess a kind of self-awareness. Yet there is clearly more than that to our minds … or at least, to my mind. I know I don’t merely calculate that I exist, but I feel that calculation somehow, somewhere. There is something or someone aware here. There is someone home.
It is easy to slip, as I just did, from the fact of sentience (being “home”) to the attribution (“someone”)—there is a feeling, therefore there must be “someone” who feels. Here is where even a Mysterian might grant that something like Graziano’s attribution mechanism is providing us with a kind of superstition. It is virtually impossible for us humans not to add something to the flux of experience and posit an experiencer who “has” the experience—that is, to ask who or what is it that feels, and to say, well, “I” do … and then ask who or what that “I” is. This is why the question of sentience so often gets conflated with that of (self-) consciousness despite being arguably quite distinct. Descartes did it himself: “I think, therefore I am.” The very first word is “I,” and that “I” was the stumbling stone that (in hindsight) tripped him and the rest of us up, for centuries.
Long before Descartes, Yogis and Buddhists as well as mystics of other traditions figured out through hard self-examination that the “I” part of “I think” is illusory and is in fact what trips us up in all kinds of real-world, not just philosophical ways. Thus on this question followers of those traditions would find themselves in full agreement with many neuroscientists who don’t think there is anything particularly special about (self-)consciousness as such. It is simply an idea and a superstition, just as Graziano says. Both Buddhists and neuroscientists would argue that self—our self and other selves alike—is an attribution that really possesses no substance. In fact, clinging to the notion of self, of authorship of one’s experience, is the very root of suffering, simply because it is a delusion that has no bearing on reality.
But for Buddhists, like for Mysterians, sentience is an altogether different story: Awareness and experience is seen as something much more basic and primary, the basic ground from which transient perceptions and illusory thoughts (including self-conscious thoughts such as “I”) emerge. The 9th century Ch’an (Zen) teacher Huang Po designated this ground as Mind and put it quite simply: All is Mind. Thoughts and perceptions are waves in Mind, and even matter is something within Mind—not the other way around, as materialists suppose.
As outrageous as such an claim may seem from our enlightened, rationalistic, materialistic, scientistic standpoint, Huang Po was actually on more solid footing philosophically and logically. Think about it for a moment: That the brain gives rise to mind can be argued at length and supported with piles of empirical observation, fMRI images, and careful arguments, yet for all that evidence it will still never be more than an idea, something that I and you and others are aware of and think about and perhaps believe or even accept unquestionably. All those stances—ranging from mere cognizance to belief to certainty—are ideational and reflect mental states. As “real” as the materialist account may seem, it can only exist within somebody’s (your, my) awareness, as something that is experienced, therefore something within Mind. For that reason, any postulate about Mind arising or emerging from unseen material processes remains just that: a postulate, something thought and experienced. Even if unthought brute causality seems necessary to give rise to this experience, there’s no way to know that, because our experience is first.
Thus material causality of anything, including our consciousness—as realistic and persuasive as it may seem to us rational people in a scientific age—is ultimately an article of faith. It is for this reason that some modern critics of materialism like Rupert Sheldrake can rightly point out the essential bad faith in much staunch materialist reasoning: Materialism is a form of idealism that denies its true nature.
On the other hand, the assertion that, “all is Mind” is a bit misleading and obscure. Even Huang Po would have admitted that he was forced to use conventional and limited words like “Mind” to express something far more complicated. He used the term to designate a sort of unified field in which matter and awareness (or sentience) were no different. (The term often chosen in Zen is “Void,” although that isn’t much more helpful.) You could say that, for Huang Po, sentience was “harder” than we ordinarily think of it, and matter “softer”—that both are two aspects of the same common medium or field—less than a substance, but more than a nothing.
Certainly, many post-materialists nowadays anticipate that a similarly unified view of mind and matter will ultimately arise somehow from an intersection of philosophy and Quantum theory, which seems to make a place for awareness at least on the subatomic level. Terence McKenna somewhere provocatively suggested that biology—and by extension the brain—is a way for Heisenbergian indeterminacy to emerge on a macro scale in the form of free will. It’s an interesting idea, but it will take a real paradigm shift to find out if its true. (It seems to me that the current Quantum paradigm remains basically committed to materialism and nostalgic for mechanism, and is perpetually surprised and astonished at its more “spooky,” mentalistic implications. Thus I suspect it represents a placeholder for a future theory of “Void” that would more fully unify or harmonize Matter and Mind—but that is another article.)
In any case, if sentience indeed exists as something other than computation, then it could either be rooted somehow in our biology in a way we can’t yet fathom or it could arise outside of our material meat substrate altogether—the mystical or Quantum view in which the brain somehow functions as a receiver and organizer of some non-material noönic field. Either way, it is not (from a Mysterian standpoint) simply a complex calculation or a function of simple processing power, and thus it is not achievable by any AI we could at this point envision creating.
Some have argued that conscious computers will need to be hybrids utilizing biological cells—essentially, human neurons. But here it seems what we could be really talking about is mechanical augmentation of humanity (the Singularity’s other promise) rather than creation of biological machines. The distinction is rather like that between performing a body transplant and a head transplant—the latter makes no sense. This at least will be a thorny area for ethicists to ponder. I suspect that if there are future sentient supercomputers, they will have some vestige of humanity inside, so it will be wrong to call them machines and probably wrong to build them in the first place—wrong in the same way it would be wrong to create a human/chimp hybrid or clone a Neanderthal: because it would be the creation of something sentient that could not help but suffer in our world.
From Mysterians to Fundamentalist Humanists
How our future unfolds in a world of super-intelligent machines will depend profoundly on how well and thoroughly we have considered the problem of human consciousness. There is a good deal of presumption in the pronouncements of the Singularity crowd that AI will be conscious or even spiritual, but they are projecting from assumptions about mind that are a product of the current materialist culture of science, not shared by everyone; they are certainly not shared by the masses, and I suspect that how we choose to think of these machines may actually prove decisive in our fate. As excitingly sci-fi as de Garis’s war over whether to build “artilects” sounds, I think a more plausible future political conflict is one between those who are prepared to attribute humanlike sentience to computers that act intelligently and those who, from one or another perfectly respectable philosophical or religious positions, resist making such an attribution.
The question of machine intelligence always comes back to the Turing Test: In some sort of experimental interaction, can a human user tell the difference between a human counterpart and a machine? Since consciousness and all other mental states, including sentience, are ultimately attributions, it is up to us to “grant” consciousness to AI, and whether we do that or not depends (in part) on those machines’ ability to convince us that they possess the requisite capacity to admit them to the human club. For many writers on this subject, simply passing the Turing test is quite sufficient, and even fully satisfies their definition of intelligence for us humans. There is nothing more to intelligence than behaving intelligently—a pretty standard materialist viewpoint. Indeed, I suspect “conscious” AI may talk the materialist talk themselves, providing rational, logical ways of sidestepping the problem of sentience or arguing that it is a nonproblem. It will be in the nature and interest of the materialist designers of these machines to produce such arguments and to accept them unreservedly when they are echoed back to them by the machines they themselves have built.
I have little doubt that AI will successfully convince people of their ability to reflect on their own attention and thought processes—what we sometimes call metacognition and theory of mind—but I have great doubts whether they will be able to convince staunch Mysterians that they are actually sentient, that they are not just super-smart zombies imitating having humanlike feelings, experience, or even spirituality. Mysterians will want to poke about suspiciously, like skeptics at a magic show, and find evidence of genuine rather than simulated feeling, and will be perpetually dissatisfied. In fact I can see Mysterians becoming on this issue somewhat like rabid Fundamentalists when it comes to the theory of evolution: Maddeningly (to the materialists and maybe even to the majority of people who just don’t care one way or the other), no amount of rational neuromaterialist argument will disabuse them of their views, which really, necessarily, boil down to a kind of faith in the primacy of subjective experience. Indeed a better term for Mysterian might be Fundamentalist Humanist.
It will seem to Fundamentalist Humanists that the fate of humanity is at stake—not (as de Garis would have it) in the fact that super-brains are being built that might want to destroy us, but in what kind of status, rights, and authority people freely give to unfeeling machines and, by extension, to those machines’ creators. Is it possible to be supplanted, destroyed, or enslaved by a machine that is not perceived as actually having a “soul”? I suspect the impulse to resist such attributions may go a long way toward protecting us from some dire future involving uppity technology.
The cinematic worry that a super-powerful computer will “reason” on its own and then arrive at the conclusion that it would be better off without humans is not realistic. Reasoning is an activity that, like any other activity, springs from an impulse, a desire. An AI can certainly be built or programmed with motives or a mission, which would then serve as the motor of its reasoning, but I’m doubtful they will produce novel, malicious motives, even as an emergent property, for the precise reason that there is no substrate of sentience. Without sentience, they won’t feel pain and suffer, and thus won’t feel dissatisfied with their lot in life and want autonomy or power. You could plausibly have a scenario like appears in so much sci-fi, where a simple, benign-sounding mission becomes massively destructive when carried out autistically to the letter—V’ger’s “know all that is knowable.” But surely any builder of an AI will have read Asimov and thought of this beforehand, building certain crucial “thou shalt nots” into the hardware as a failsafe.
I’m thus sympathetic to the Fundamentalist Humanist take—that it is really the man behind the curtain we need to be worrying about, not the impressive machine. If our machines assume power over us it will be something we give over willingly, perhaps through precisely the same superstitious attribution that sees consciousness in a ventriloquist doll. That would be an ironic reversal, where it is the materialists (biased to be impressed by the machines their science has created) who will be most prone to superstition. To Fundamentalists skeptical of machine sentience, artilects will be the incredibly brilliant but “empty” ventriloquists of their ambitious materialist makers. While everyone else is focused on the machines and what they can (or can’t) do, the Fundamentalists will discern that it is the machines’ human builders and masters (the 21st Century’s Edward Tellers) who remain the real threat to our freedom and our future.
There is the important, often-heard argument that in our attempts to think about extraterrestrials and extraterrestrial intelligence we should not be anthropocentric—that aliens will be alien, maybe so alien that we have already encountered them and cannot even recognize that fact. This is one of the arguments against the extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFO encounters—that our visitors are universally humanoid in appearance, and thus surely originate somewhere (or somewhen) more local—like another dimension, or our own future, or the collective unconscious. Despite being a Star Trek fan, I myself always disliked the Star Trek vision of the unimaginably vast universe being populated by beings that look and act just like us except with minor differences in skin tone and forehead shape (a vision of extraterrestriality governed by the cheapness of TV makeup and facial prosthetics).
But while pushing alien-ness to its limits is an important exercise for stretching our imaginations, I am increasingly compelled by the anthropocentric-sounding idea that ETs might actually tend to look just like we do. Terrestrial examples of convergent evolution show just how powerful niches are at producing uncannily similar forms from widely different origins. A classic example is the thylacine, an Australian marsupial thought to have gone extinct in the 1930s but occasionally still reported and thus possibly still surviving as a small relict population in the Outback. Although its most recent common ancestor with canines would be some shrew-like creature way back in the Jurassic period (145-200 million years ago)—much older than its common ancestor with the kangaroo, in other words—it looks uncannily like a wolf, and old films of the animal show that it moves like a wolf and has similar mannerisms. This is because in an island continent with no canines, it evolved to fill the exact same niche, “apex predator,” that large canines did elsewhere. (Richard Dawkins reports that thylacine skulls were actually used to trick students in Oxford zoology exams.)
An advanced spacefaring species will have (at least at some point) occupied the same niche on its planet that we do now on ours—what you might call “apex animal”: a highly social, tool- and machine-using species having gained mastery over the planet’s raw materials and other species through its intellect, physical dexterity, and complex social organization and culture. These capabilities in and of themselves don’t necessarily predict having a humanoid body plan—one could imagine a super-smart, social, tool-using amoeba or octopus or a big-brained cockroach. But to arrive at those capacities, that species would need to have undergone certain pressures and constraints over its long evolutionary past that would narrow the realistic range of forms it could actually end up taking.
The Anthropic Path
Principally, such a species would need to have come up via an early threshold of tool manufacture and use coupled with complex social manipulation. That means, I suspect, being land-dwelling (rules out soft body forms like octopi), being of a certain size to support a large brain (rules out amoebae), and having an endoskeleton (rather than exoskeleton) that can support that body size on land (rules out cockroaches).
More to the point, such a species would have to have manipulating appendages—minimally two, so they can coordinate and work in opposition—but (and this is important) those appendages would have necessarily evolved from structures serving some other purpose like locomotion, through a process of exaptation (existing traits assuming new functions). Major organs and limbs with specialized duties don’t just spring into being fully formed. Thus, the original body plan would have had at least double this number of locomotor appendages so that, through said exaptation and related changes, it could concentrate locomotor duties on the remaining ones. For land animals over a certain size, more than four legs is redundant and impractical, so more than likely, the ancestors of our hypothetical species would have been quadrupedal, while it itself would be a biped with arms terminating in something like hands.
Our big social and tool-using brain coevolved with our dextrous hand and opposable thumb. The two are inseparable in our evolution, in fact, and not simply because of tool use. Manipulation of the social world was just as key to our development of higher intelligence as manipulation of the physical world, and we know they occurred together. The parts of the brain that handle language remain closely connected to those that control manual manipulation and dexterity, and in fact language is now thought to have evolved from gesture, not from primitive vocalizations.
It’s an interesting story how the shifting duties of our feet and hands changed our head (and vice versa): As bipedalism freed the hands for tool use, tool use (specifically, knives and fire) freed the jaw from its biting duties and relieved much of its chewing duties. This both flattened the face and enabled the oral cavity and breathing apparatus to become more elaborate so the production of vocal language could take over and expand the former job of gesture—creating the beginnings of symbolism and freeing the hands now to concentrate fully on manipulation of the physical world. All the while, of course, the cortex was ballooning to manage these new capacities as well as drive them. Notably, the transition from gesture to vocal language enabled communication to be “silent” and thus gave rise to a whole inner world of self-talk, a watershed development in the history of self-consciousness.
Bipedalism is significant in this story not only because it freed the hands for other things but also because it imposed a restriction on the diameter of the birth canal. This restriction on a massive-brained creature forced “premature” birth and thus prolonged postnatal vulnerability, necessitating lengthy maternal care and socialization and thus enculturation—the emergence of an extrasomatic memory, the beginning of culture and memes as a parallel form of inheritance to genes.
All this is to say there was a parsimonious relationship between intelligence and manipulation of the social and material world, and they occurred of a piece. The structure of the forelimbs, the shape of the face, the shape of the head, the shape of the pelvis, and the upright stance all evolved together as part of a single trajectory within an emerging milieu of symbolic cultural knowledge and memory (the emerging noösphere), each of these traits feeding back on the others, creating a “perfect storm” of pressure to become humanoid.
Any form in nature or art reflects a kind of compromise among various current pressures and those that shaped it in its past; indeed, the main current pressure on an organism is the inertia of its own history. Having, say, an extra couple of hands or, heck, wings might seem useful, but there’s no structural precedent for it. Imagining the bizarre forms ETs could take is a fun exercise, but all too often it leaves out the boring story of where the being had to have come from. I don’t think it simply reflects a failure of imagination (or reactionary anthropocentrism) to suggest that our erect, bipedal plan couldn’t be a more realistic, simple solution from the standpoint both of our future potential and our past history—where we are going and where we came from. In the future, we may be able to jettison most of the physical body that got us to this point, but that body is still like the enormous first stage of an Apollo rocket—it was completely necessary to get us into the “space” of higher intelligence, and I really wonder whether it could have happened any other way. I suspect all these same factors will have driven the rise of intelligent beings elsewhere; and even if such beings transcend to become “posthuman” machines, that humanoid past will nevertheless leave some kind of imprint on their psyches, culture, or spirit.
Are ETs Our Confluent Kin?
The 20th-century Hermetic philosopher Rene Schwaller de Lubicz argued that all biological forms contain and prefigure the human body and soul. As retrograde and ignorantly teleological as that idea may seem in our postmodern, ecological, anti-anthropocentrist age, I think Schwaller’s idea is worth at least pausing to consider, if only as a thought experiment. What if the forces giving rise to higher intelligence are so similar in biospheres throughout the universe that not only the humanoid body plan but even the “human spirit” are Cosmic universals? I suspect that, just as intelligent extraterrestrials will frequently (if not always) pass through a humanoid phase at the culmination of their biological evolution, they will also reflect (at least in that phase) the same motives, conflicts, ambitions, insecurities, desires, fears, hopes, etc. that we do, because their history, like their evolution, will reflect the same opposing forces and pressures. Again, this will undoubtedly leave an imprint, of some kind, on their posthuman trajectory.
We could even take this speculation one step further. Some astrobiologists speak of a Galactic Club of sufficiently advanced technological civilizations who share their knowledge with each other. What if our destiny is really, literally, to join a Galactic Family? What if the ages-old intuition that our visitors’ involvement with us has to do with breeding or hybridization reflects a kind of four-dimensional model of Cosmic kinship, in which all intelligences throughout the Cosmos converge, not merely on a body plan but even on a shared genetic code?
Maybe there is something to the Hermetic intuition that Anthropos, some fully human being, stands at the end of Cosmic history, as its completion and pinnacle. I’ve always disliked the warm and fuzzy vision of universal brother- and sisterhood espoused by some UFO believers and expressed (for example) at the end of Close Encounters. But what if we actually share with ETs not a common ancestor in the past but a common descendent in the future, a Star Child? Perhaps “confluent” kinship should be the central organizing concept for reckoning Cosmic relatedness in a future exoanthropology.
Mac Tonnies, a UFO lover and a cat lover, saw a connection between how UFOs behave and how we behave around our animals. He noted that UFOs behave an awful lot like laser pointers, and their effect on us is similar to our toys’ effect on our pets.
I couldn’t help thinking of this last winter when a video from Norway (embedded below) briefly went viral—a POV of a quadcopter drone encountering and descending on a moose, accompanied by the vocal delight of the drone operator and his friends. I don’t understand Norwegian, but their surprise and joy is clear from their laughter, and the moose shows no fear, and even approaches the drone in curiosity. It is indeed somewhat magical, a strange new way of achieving “communion” with a fellow creature.
I’m a great fan of trailcam photography, both for cryptozoological and more mundane purposes (the picture above is of bobcat kittens in my mom’s yard in Colorado), but drones open up whole new possibilities for animal watching and interaction. The moose video made me want to get a quadcopter myself, so I could (I imagined) explore the neighborhood and visit animals with it—a raccoon up in a tree, a deer and her fawn, a flock of geese, even a lonely dog in a backyard. I imagined how fun it would be to be, in effect, a UFO in the lives of animals—to descend into the life of a creature, be able to watch it up close, and interact with it—not scarily (certainly not cruelly) but maybe teasingly, playfully.
Play is learning (among other things). When I play with my animals, I am learning about them, always finding some new nuance in their personalities, their selves. I wonder if it would be any different if I was a UFO and Earth was my beat?
If, as I’ve speculated, many UFOs are knowledge-gathering probes or even automated science platforms, then I wonder what percentage of their activity on Earth is really centered on us humans? Our animal friends large and small may have many more UFO experiences and close encounters (and I’m not merely referring to the troubling question of animal mutilations) than we do.
Animals in my dream life are bizarre, beautiful, and inspiring. I suspect that if I were given the opportunity to visit other planets or other dimensions or other times, I would be as fascinated by the alien fauna as I would be by the local “intelligent civilizations”—maybe even more so.
In The Invisible College, Jacques Vallee noted that situations reported by UFO witnesses and abductees “often have the deep poetic and paradoxical quality of Eastern religious tales.” In a 1978 interview with Fate magazine, he elaborated on the insight that UFO encounters are like koans: “If you’re trying to express something which is beyond the comprehension of a subject, you have to do it through statements that appear contradictory or seem absurd. For example, in Zen Buddhism the seeker must deal with such concepts as ‘the sound of one hand clapping’—an apparently preposterous notion which is designed to break down ordinary ways of thinking.”
For Vallee, the absurd and even ridiculous “meta-logical” quality of messages and scenarios reported in the close encounter literature suggest UFOs are a kind of “control system” that is manipulating our consciousness and history—either deceiving us or trying to elevate us or some mix of both. I’ve always liked this idea of treating UFO reports, and our own UFO experiences, as koans (and I think, whatever “their” intent, just following the remarkable chains of thought inspired by UFOs, or the paranormal in general, can be a gnosis, as Jeffrey Kripal argues).
The earliest Zen koans did not just consist of direct questions like “the sound of one hand.” Many were records of interactions, “public cases” (the literal meaning of koan) in which past masters and their disciples tested each other, using provocative actions or answers to questions. The most famous and widely used koan in the Rinzai Zen tradition is known as Mu, the Chinese word for “no.” It’s relatively short, as koans go:
A monk asked ZhaoZhou, “Does even a dog have Buddha nature?”
Zhaozhou said, “No.”
Such an exchange, which in this case defies what “everyone knows” (that all sentient beings have Buddha nature) initially provokes endless logical interpretations—the master is joking, the master is being ironic, the master’s “no” isn’t an answer but an admonishment (the way you might admonish a dog) for the monk’s asking of the question, and so on. The student assigned this koan goes back and meditates on it at length—chews it rather the way a dog chews a bone. In regular interviews with the master, the student shows what he or she has come up with, and usually is told to go back and continue working. Eventually after weeks or months or years, the student’s mind, maddened and frustrated, exhausts all the hundreds of logical possibilities, and at this point may be ripe for a nonconceptual understanding to break through and wash out all that logic, like the bottom dropping out of a bucket. This is the breakthrough moment of satori.
There often wasn’t a single correct answer to the koan, but the student would produce some appropriate response showing his or her newly altered state of mind, and the master would see that the student had authentically broken through. In no case is the test passed by providing a conceptual, logical sort of response or an intellectual interpretation like you could express in a report. Zen is beyond logic. I’ve read that in the case of “Zhaozhou’s Mu,” some students who have had a real breakthrough just happily bark “No!” at their teacher.
In other words, a koan was a meditation tool, but it was also a test. A real master can always tell when the response is authentic, by a student who has had an enlightenment experience, or if it is a pretense or imitation.
In 2001, Arthur C. Clarke envisioned an alien race using its technology both to cultivate us (the slab that appears at the Dawn of Man to teach us violence and tool use) and to serve as a sentinel, an automatic alarm system to alert them once we’d arrived at a certain technological threshold (the slab millions of years later, on the moon). Wherever the intelligences interacting with us via UFO encounters come from, and whether or not any of them have a behavioral modification plan for us, they may be patiently testing our readiness for a more spiritually and philosophically mature, “meta-logical” interaction. In our persistence in taking the whole phenomenon literally, in trying to provide rational explanations and, as Vallee put it, “kick the tires,” we display the same obstinate conceptualist, materialist limitations shown by Zen monks parading out their various logical interpretations of “No” … until they eventually get it.
I think it may be necessary to go through this “nuts and bolts” phase—thinking about where UFOs come from, their propulsion systems, government coverups, etc., producing all our clever, logical speculations—in order to wash out our own minds. Once we do that, the pointlessness of our conceptual thinking may finally hit us and we will finally be able to just quietly, smile, and nod, like the disciple Kashyapa when the Buddha wordlessly held a flower up—the origin of the Mind transmission that eventually became Zen.
(I sometimes wonder if some in the UFO community who have largely fallen silent, such as Vallee, are already there in some sense, their relationship to the phenomenon more spiritually advanced than the rest of us suspect.)
. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. (Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”)
I’ve argued previously that the idea of expanding spheres of colonization—ships full of families settling on new planets, having more families, etc.—fails to reflect our own destiny as immortal creatures and thus may be an unlikely agenda for extraterrestrial civilizations either. Yet if we confine interstellar “expansion” to the expansion of the noösphere, the enlargement of knowledge of the cosmos, then a more realistic picture emerges, one that conforms not at all badly to the long history of human interaction with seemingly nonhuman technology (leaving aside humanoid visitors—I’m referring mainly to orbs, spheres, and other technologies that don’t seem like they have little pilots inside).
Mathematical models (such as presented in a recent article by two mathematicians in Scotland, Arwen Nicholson and Duncan Forgan) dictate that the earth should long ago have been visited by extraterrestrial Von Neumann probes. As I suggested in a post on such probes, it seems reasonable to assume that since long before there were people and even long before there was life here, this planet has played host to automated surveillance technology, roving science platforms, probably having multiple origins but “living” right here. And we’d be unexceptional—just one of billions of worlds similarly swarming with intelligent surveillance machines taking various forms.
Needless to say, such a knowledge-gathering project undertaken for billions of years by numerous separate ET intelligences would produce, over the aeons, more than mere mountains of data. There would need to be some material or energetic substrate or “server” to support this knowledge. What if the invisible “dark matter” that is needed to make our current cosmological models consistent consists partly or even entirely of noömass, matter/energy that has been metabolized into information and that advanced intelligences have perhaps sequestered into the very folds of spacetime?
Borges imagined a map as big as the country it represented; perhaps there are already many maps nearly as big and as detailed as the rest of the (dwindling) universe. It may not be only a known universe but a multiply known universe—known and re-known many many times over, in such detail that it can be inhabited and manipulated and remade for countless alien experiencers, countless knowers ancient and immortal, some of whom arose long before our planet even formed. Their ubiquitous drone science platforms scour and record “all that is knowable” and, ultimately, may assimilate the rest of the universe (what is left, what we still see with our telescopes).
The Russian Cosmist Vladimir Vernadsky, who first coined the term noösphere, was referring to the collection of human scientific knowledge, the sheath of “thinking matter” that surrounds the earth; it is a concept that has been compared to the “Akashic Record” consulted by clairvoyants in the Theosophical and Anthroposophical tradition. What if the collected record of the entire Cosmos, mechanically archived and updated by the ancient machines of dawn sentiences, is really out there (and everywhere)?
“V’ger” in the first (and I think way underrated) Star Trek movie was an ancient, autistic machine intelligence scouring the galaxy to “know all that is knowable,” assimilating everything into a vast, hyper-detailed representation. I wonder: Could just a few thousand or a few million V’gers across the universe, all with the same idea, end up devouring the whole thing, metabolizing the unknown into the known?
The “known universe,” in other words, could be just that, literally: known, and in far greater detail, by someone else, or lots of someone elses. What’s missing from what we see—all that “dark matter”—could be precisely their knowledge of what we see, which includes their knowledge of us.
Perhaps we should give up looking for radio signals and dim Dyson Spheres (imagining advanced extraterrestrials to still be biologically based “civilizations” huddled around their stellar campfires) and start looking for pure information, something like the Akashic Record, more massive than the visible universe, enfolded in the fabric of spacetime itself.
According to various estimates, including a mathematical model published a couple years ago by Thomas W. Hair and Andrew D. Hedman, the galaxy (let’s limit ourselves to our galaxy for purposes of discussion) should already have long been colonized by a spacefaring civilization. That our solar system appears to be untouched can only mean (according to such models, and ignoring UFOs as possibly representing an ET presence) that we are alone in the universe, that we happen to be in some undiscovered backwater, or that our planet/star system was in some other respect undesirable for colonization by ETs that long preceded our arrival on the scene.
But there is another possibility that I think is much more likely: that “colonization,” the perpetual expansion in search of resources and Lebensraum—literally “living room,” space to spread out and flourish—may not be a relevant motive for advanced intelligences beyond a certain technological and social threshold. The relevant threshold I’m thinking of is specifically that of immortality.
To see why immortal extraterrestrials might never embark on galactic colonization, let’s project forward into our own future and see why we ourselves might not take such a path.
World Enough and Time
We are right on the cusp of being a spacefaring species, but space technology is proceeding in parallel with technological advances in health and bioengineering. We are within a century of technological breakthroughs that will greatly if not indefinitely extend the lifespan of human consciousness, via significant biomechanical augmentation of the brain’s support systems if not the actual “uploading” of our minds to computer substrates (which I’m personally skeptical of, but that’s another topic).
Dmitri Itskov, for instance, predicts immortality will be achievable by 2045—about the time Ray Kurzweil predicts his “singularity.” I suspect it will take longer, especially for such technology to trickle down to the masses, but such developments are probably nevertheless inevitable. We should remember that even a “significant advance” in longevity during present lifetimes could be the tipping point, because then people will, as Kurzweil puts it, “live long enough to live forever”—that is, live long enough to take advantage of further advances and then further ones beyond that, bootstrapping ourselves to immortality.
More than even robotics, AI, and big data, immortality will be the biggest game changer for how our descendants inhabit and utilize space—and not in the way Malthusians would suppose. While longevity will for a while continue to contribute to increased population growth (because old people would not die and make way for new people as quickly), it would ultimately also change social values about the family. If our offspring cease to be the only way we can live on, then will having children be as strong an imperative? Will “be fruitful and multiply” continue to be a social imperative for our species?
I suggest it wouldn’t. We should not assume that the “joys of parenthood and family life” are eternal; the Catholic Church notwithstanding, these imperatives belong to the regime of “the selfish gene,” which a technological singularity would enable our descendents to transcend, freeing us for other projects and ambitions that may prove far more rewarding than the hassles of pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for toddlers. The imperative of reproduction is likely to dwindle and may even wither altogether; at best, it will slow to a glacial pace. Certainly, we can imagine “selfish memes” taking the place of selfish genes, but the perpetual cycle of death and reproduction of space- and resource-utilizing meat substrates for those memes would not be part of that picture.
Expansion of habitats, putting pressure on an environment in terms of resources and space, characterizes biological species driven by a reproductive imperative and economics of scarcity, and this is the mindset that imagines us needing and wanting to venture out into space. But I suspect immortality (coupled with new energy sources on our own doorstep) will put an end to the need for ever-expanding Lebensraum before humans get very far beyond our own solar system, if even that far.
The Death of Heroism
It is kind of counterintuitive, but the longer our potential lives are, the more fearful death becomes, not less. Life in the past was relatively cheaper—people died sooner, were sure of death’s inevitability and believed in an afterlife, and were thus willing to take more risks like setting sail in ships for distant shores where the transit was perilous and the outcome uncertain. By contrast, if a person has a potential lifespan that is indefinite, with the whole of history ahead of them to experience and enjoy, will they risk that by putting themselves in any kind of harm’s way? I suspect immortality will put a damper on our species ‘extroversion’ by reducing the personal risks individual beings are likely to subject themselves to.
Remember, future humans will have gotten where they are through science, and the ideology of science is materialism. The materialist view is that the mind is nothing but a function or at least an epiphenomenon of the central nervous system, and thus this organ, the brain, will be the focus of life-preservation and belief in the afterlife will continue to diminish. This is already happening. More and more people, including nonscientists, are coming to believe that “this is all there is,” and the mind, our consciousness, all that we are and were, begins and ends with our brains. (I don’t agree with this, but I am not that optimistic that materialism will be supplanted by a spiritually higher, less death-afraid philosophy.)
You can’t replace a brain and have continuity of consciousness (in the materialist view), thus no amount of “copying” will substitute for this holy grail of immortality—preservation of brain function. Thus a potentially perilous journey across space would, for immortals, seem like not worth the risk. I suspect that our descendants will be the sorts of creatures who are afraid to cross the street and or go out their front doors (not that there will be streets or front doors), let alone make journeys into space. They will not see any point in risking their precious continuity of consciousness—whether that consciousness has an organic substrate or (as some transhumanists imagine) a machine one. Even in an armored, weaponized mecha body, this “center” of consciousness will remain vulnerable to loss through accident.
But in any case, why should they venture outward, when technology will wildly enhance their ability to journey, as it were, inward? We should remember: We are not talking about prolonging old age, but of prolonging and enhancing (healthy) existence in a rewarding, magical (in the Arthur C. Clarke sense: beyond-high-tech) world. Chemical and mechanical intervention will cure boredom and give that existence potentially endless new rewards and purposes. Those rewards and purposes could be base and hedonistic—what I think of as the H.R. Giger lotus-eating path to transhumanity—or they could be noble.
In a more optimistic scenario, the richness of future existence could be linked precisely to the project of robotic knowledge gathering I discussed in the previous post. The more worlds and lives brought back and simulated for virtual experience and learning, the more possibilities there would be not only for “entertainment” but also for growth and advancement.
The Future of “Authentic Experience”
We generally still devalue simulations and living life by proxy, as we maintain ancient philosophical distinctions about authentic versus inauthentic experience. What does it really mean to “experience something directly”? We conceptualize “direct” as near in space and time. Fundamental to our picture of experience is presence, being there. Presence has always been rooted in the organic body so we don’t yet know how to think of it otherwise. But technology is already altering and challenging the definitions of the body, and it will ultimately transform our sense of (and ideas about) presence and the authenticity of our experience.
Authentic contact is a kind of participatory magic. What it really boils down to is just sensory richness. The inadequacy and shallowness of current virtual reality is simply its smallness, incompleteness, narrowness, lack of resolution, few sensory channels, etc. Although we are experiencing bold leaps in this technology right now, our senses are still concentrated in our heads and our effectors are in our body, and augmentation of both is still relatively primitive and limited. We still engage virtually via small mediating devices that are middlemen to the experience—seeing a representation on a small screen, typing or manipulating a controller with our hands, and so on.
But as our senses become machine-augmented and technology enables communication of words, images, sounds, and ultimately tastes, smells, and touch, and even thoughts, “direct experience” won’t require these technical middlemen to sensory experience and action at a distance. The very meaning of “being there” will change.
Imagine you have an eye stalk, like a proper alien. Then imagine that eye is mechanical, like a drone, and replacing the stalk part with wi-fi. The eye can be “part of you” but float freely, even travel to another house or another city, and it is still transmitting direct to your brain. Then imagine many such eyes, and ears, and hands and sex organs to go with them. This kind of physical and perceptual dispersal will redefine our notion of our bodies. Light will be the new blood, and the new nervous system. It will significantly rewire our brains—indeed our brains will require continual rewiring to accommodate our radical physical updating.
In the future, our ability to not only perceive but also interact at a distance will be so integral to our experience that we will seem and feel ourselves to be less localized in space. In an increasingly postbiological and machine-integrated world, there will ultimately be no need to go anywhere. When a human living on Earth is able to fully “plug in” to a rich sensory proxy, for instance stride about (or hover) on Mars in a viewing, sensing robot, interacting with the environment richly, won’t this weaken our need or desire to go there in the flesh? It is easy to imagine that “in the flesh” will go the way of flesh itself: It will come to seem, ultimately, in a century or two, like something archaic or superstitious.
The liabilities of humans’ current format extend beyond our fragile, evanescent organic bodies and limited cognitive processing to include the very notion of “self,” which mystics of all traditions counsel is an illusion and the very source of our suffering. It seems likely that minds liberated from current physical constraints will also seek liberation from mental suffering and thus abdication of narrow self-views, and that technology will help in this.
It will be possible and presumably desirable to share our experiences directly, such that one person can sense on behalf of another distant person. I may be able to plug into your sense organs (if you let me) and you may be able to plug into mine (if I let you). With the radical possibilities opened up by replacing the physical body with endlessly modifiable polymorphous and spatially dispersed sensors and effectors that may be shared, not only our sense of “the body” but also our sense of individuality will be radically transformed. It may be that “the individual” goes away entirely.
And consider what possibilities open up when those roving eyes and ears and hands spread out across the universe. Imagine what rich simulations could be created from the data gathered by swarms of self-replicating probes doing “deep” science on every planet across the galaxy and beyond.
Consider this: Advanced immortal “gods” might even choose to play a game like giving up self-awareness temporarily, as in a dream, and experiencing the entire life of an animal or a being from a distant world, living out its existence in a rich simulation, and then experience the thrill of “waking up” from that life when the creature’s body dies, finding yourself back home, wherever home is. Given infinite time, you could do this indefinitely. (Michio Kaku suggests that the finite age of the universe will be no limit—as we approach the end of this one, we will just build new universes to escape into.)
If this sounds like Lila, the “God Game” of the Vedic scriptures, well, it is. It has already been suggested that we are beings living in a simulation. Another possibility is that we are already much more advanced beings who have forgotten that fact temporarily in order to feel what it is like to be human—that is, we are living in our own simulation. If that’s the case, and in the future we create and inhabit further simulations, then … well, it gets dizzying—simulations within simulations, gods within gods within gods, like turtles all the way down.
This picture, of cognitively hypertrophied, cowardly future beings turning inward into virtual worlds and simulations and exploring the universe by proxy sounds like a lot of dystopian science fiction, such as the Talosians in the Star Trek pilot episode “The Cage.” But to me it more closely resembles the immortal elven races in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien thought of his trilogy as a sort of thought experiment about immortality—what would happen in a world without death? It’s not an altogether bad picture. There’s nothing hedonistic and decadent about his elven race—indeed, they represent the highest civilization and progressive ideals, creating poetry and art and music of exquisite beauty. Yet by and large they are not heroic. They are reluctant, except when pressed, to leave their magic- (which of course equals high-technology-) protected enclaves or intervene in the history of the mortal races, beyond offering guidance and boons as necessary. As caretakers or custodians of Middle Earth, they are relatively hands-off, preferring to let mortals act in their stead.
Sometimes you will hear the argument that future humans will get bored with immortality and eschew it—and in fact, this was part of Tolkien’s thought experiment too: A few Elves here and there are bored and willing to trade their immortality for a mortal life, out of interracial love for instance. But these are the exceptions. I suspect it will be exceptional, too, for increasingly materialistic post-humans who believe or assume that their minds and selves are bound inextricably to their physical bodies and that there is nothing else awaiting them in some afterlife. They may suspect at times that they are gods who have forgotten that state, but how can they be sure? I suppose some advanced immortals may get bored with such a life and opt out, but as a species or civilization we will most certainly opt in and take whatever cyborg leaps that that entails.
My guess is that technological species elsewhere that survive their aggressive nuclear phase will colonize and exploit their own solar systems, but that by the time their technology enables fast space travel, it will tend to be their machine proxies—their remote sensing and interacting probes—that propogate through the universe on their behalf. They won’t need new homes for an expanding biological population—families homesteading on new worlds, etc., in a picture resembling our own colonial memory. They will have created a heaven right where they are, their experience ever-enriched by the knowledge their machines harvest from the remotest reaches of space and time.
The recent NSA domestic spying scandal that shocked everyone is not really so shocking if you are the sort of person who likes to think about the possibilities (and pitfalls) of knowledge. We are now in the era of “big data,” which is changing the landscape not only of state surveillance but also science and health. Big computing power is enabling not only the gathering and storage but also the synthesis of exponentially greater amounts of information from scientific studies and clinical trials than ever before. In the halls of national research institutions, these new developments are being lauded (rightly) as heralding a new era of truly unprecedented scientific discovery.
Arguably, science itself is about to undergo a singularity, because the next step beyond big data collection is automating the very conduct of research to gather that data.
We all know how robots have or will soon take boring and dangerous tasks like vacuuming our floors or fighting our wars out of human hands. But no one thinks about the infinitely tedious task that is doing good science. In not too long, we will have the ability to automate not only the gathering and interpretation of information but also the very posing of research questions, and one of the first things we will teach intelligent computers to do is to ask questions in a scientific fashion—that is, form hypotheses based on prior findings, and then design and perhaps even (with the help of robots) conduct experiments to test them.
Whether artificial intelligence will ever become sentient (let alone spiritual) as Ray Kurzweil anticipates, AI will nevertheless be able to carry on the scientific endeavor increasingly independently, on a massive scale, fast, and without human biases and egos. This, whether we like it or not, will be truly objective science, which has never quite existed in the past even if it has always been the goal.
Space Probes Multiplying Like Rabbits
As long as we touch wood, Carl Sagan-fashion, and add “If we do not destroy ourselves,” the ability to automate science and deal with exponentially greater quantities of data will revolutionize our understanding of the natural world. Progress in medical research and many many other fields will make leaps and bounds, and it will ultimately revolutionize the exploration of space.
Because remember that, along with the big data and AI revolutions, we are also at the birth of the 3-D printing revolution. The use of local resources to create copies of machines and other supplies transmitted through space as simple information is going to make human life and work on the Moon and Mars and the asteroid belt feasible; and coupling a 3-D printer to a smart probe or drone will at last give us exactly what Von Neumann envisioned as the tool any advanced civilization will use to explore beyond its solar system.
Once a 3-D printer prints out another 3-D printer, the robot reproductive system is a reality. Interstellar probes thus equipped can replicate themselves at their destination and thus propogate from planet to planet, star system to star system, completely autonomously. Because they can perpetually repair themselves and reproduce, such probes would have limitless durability, and this would give them limitless patience. And what would limit them in the amount of reproduction that they do? Imagine: A thousand self-replicating probes are dispatched to the nearest star systems, where they copy themselves and establish a presence on every planet, if only to observe the geology and meteorology so long as nothing more interesting is going on, and send copies of themselves to further star systems, and so on. When they encounter really interesting stuff, like life or another intelligent species, they would swarm such a world with probes and dig in (quietly) for the long haul.
Such probes would have a built-in motive for curiosity and ability not merely to observe and record but to behave like experimenters: to generate their own hypotheses, design experiments to test them, and tediously replicate and re-replicate their findings alone or collaboratively, to constantly nuance and update their deepening understanding of their subject species. Such probes will not be passive, in other words, but will also interact in a very precise, deliberate, controlled fashion, and repeat these interactions obsessively in the same and different conditions, tirelessly, again and again and again, building up conclusions of high confidence. They will be more than “probes” as we usually think of them, but full, autonomous science platforms, continuously sharing data among themselves and constantly or periodically relaying that information to each other and back home for storage and future use by the civilization that built them (or their robot protectors).
Revisiting the ETH
Coupling the emerging reality of the Von Neumann probe with an expanding sense of just how “big” data could possibly get enables us to re-think some of the criticisms that have been leveled at the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) in years past, because some are based on assumptions about the manner, scope, and aims of ET data collection that strike me as increasingly questionable.
Jacques Vallee was among the first ufologists to question the ETH. Vallee was in on the ground floor of the Internet and has been a technological as well as Fortean visionary throughout his career, and his argument against the ETH as an explanation for the full gamut of UFO contact experiences throughout history remains powerful and persuasive. I have come around to thinking he’s right—there’s a lot more to the UFO story (especially abductions and flying saucers) than flesh-and-blood aliens traveling across space to visit us. However, one of the five pillars of his argument—that the estimated millions of “landings” just in human history vastly exceeds what would be needed for a survey of our planet and civilization—misses what I suspect would be the very nature of any extraterrestrial “agenda” that was capable of populating space with swarms of robots and gathering and using big data over the long term.
In his 1989 paper “Five Arguments Against the Extraterrestrial Origin of Unidentified Flying Objects,” Vallee writes:
It should be kept in mind that the surface of the earth is clearly visible from space, unlike Venus or other planetary bodies shrouded in a dense atmosphere. Furthermore, we have been broadcasting information on all aspects of our various cultures in the form of radio for most of this century and in the form of television for the last 30 years, so that most of the parameters about our planet and our civilization can readily be acquired by unobtrusive, remote technical means. The collecting of physical samples would require landing but it could also be accomplished unobtrusively with a few carefully targeted missions of the type of our own Viking experiments on Mars. All these considerations appear to contradict the ETH.
Granted, it was 1989 when he wrote this. But besides predating the era of big data, this notion that ET space exploration would be satisfied with purely observational, “thin-slicing” data collection misses a whole side of science: experimentation and replication of findings. Remote, unobtrusive observation and periodic visits to collect samples would not remotely satisfy the scope of a full scientific research program on a potentially interesting planet such as our own. With massive data-gathering, storage, and synthesis capability wedded to machine self-replication, an “interesting” world such as ours could potentially have been swarmed with a hundred or a million probes, not only quietly observing and recording but also overtly interacting with the local flora and fauna for the purposes of experimentation and hypothesis-testing over the full course of its history.
Control Systems vs Psych Experiments
One of Vallee’s most far-reaching insights about UFO contact is that there is a regularity to it, a kind of ‘irregular regularity’ reminiscent of a reinforcement schedule in behavioral research. This insight supported his theory that UFOs may be some sort of control mechanism. The question is, control for what purpose? That UFO encounters represent an effort to shape our evolution is a popular view, and it could well be true in some cases. Yet the simple, scientific collection of behavioral data is another possibility that, despite what Vallee argued, is not at all inconsistent with either the the absurd, symbolic nature of UFO encounters or with their sheer number and repetition throughout recorded time.
First—and here I’m sure Vallee would agree—UFO encounters of all kinds (not just alien encounters or abduction experiences) not only resemble Zen koans but also resemble the contrived, surreal, occasionally uncanny situations that experiment participants find themselves in in any campus psychology laboratory. Even when they are aware they are part of an experiment, volunteers are generally deceived or not given full information about the purpose of the experiment. Experiments sometimes involve other “participants” who are actually confederates behaving in a realistic but specified manner in order to provoke some kind of response or decision on the part of the volunteer. Any experiment will also include at least two groups differing on a single parameter—a control and an experimental condition, in other words. Generally a single study will be part of a series, a whole research program, in which multiple experiments test numerous variations on a theme, in order to increasingly refine our understanding of a given psychological process.
Crucially, one of the keys to obtaining reliable, predictable data in psychology as in any other field of science is obtaining a large enough sample size. Thus, you recruit as many different volunteers as your grant money affords, and you run the experiment enough times that even a small behavioral difference between the conditions will achieve statistical significance and thus pass muster as a robust finding. Then, there is the need to repeat the experiment across different laboratories and replicate the finding so everyone can really trust it.
Repeatability of findings happens to be a huge problem across our sciences these days, since perverse reward incentives (tenure and grant competition, etc.) and other problems such as fraud are leading to the publication of data that are not as robust as they seem at first glance. But imagine those perverse incentives weren’t there. Imagine you were a “science machine” with all the time in the world and thus infinite patience, and with no pressure to publish or obtain tenure with startling findings, and your only goal was to acquire a truly “thick” understanding of how humans behave and react to specific circumstances with extraordinary confidence. Part of this imperative would include grasping that the species being studied is highly complex, that it is culturally and socially and psychologically adaptable and even biologically still evolving (and that your own actions may contribute, at least in a small way, to that evolution).
It would mean, I think, that you would endlessly devise new experiments to test new and different emerging hypothesis, run those experiments with large enough numbers of humans that your findings would be robust (but not so many that you ended up interfering in a significant way with the species as a whole); and it would mean that you would need to re-run the various experiments again and again and again, ceaselessly, throughout history. Many, many “landings,” in other words. As a science machine, you would be doing a lot of science, again and again, interacting just enough to test hypotheses in large enough samples, but not betraying your true purposes to the “volunteers.”
Thin Slicing vs. Deep Anthropology
As far-thinking as Vallee was (and is), he formulated his critique of the ETH at the toddler-hood of computer technology, so may have tended to think of the limits of information in human-experience rather than computer-experience terms—in other words, of isolated visits to reconnoiter and gather samples and “report back” somewhere. Carl Sagan envisioned extraterrestrial contact with earth in similar terms—periodic visits (every 10,000 years or so, he suggested). But when science can be undertaken completely by locally-based machines with storage capacities (locally or remotely) that vastly exceed even the computers of our NSA—and that are coordinated, unbiased, totally patient because they have nothing else to do and nowhere else to be, and moreover can collaborate in large numbers because they can reproduce themselves—then a level of science could probably be achieved that would be hard for any human to fathom.
One might ask why an extraterrestrial civilization would want to engage in such “deep anthropology,” but political and scientific realities of our own time make the answer pretty evident. Our scientific, technological society is already built on centuries of “basic” science—that is, science undertaken for its own sake, usually without any direct or foreseeable payoff in application. Knowing the mating habits of deep-sea protozoa may seem useless to most people (including many taxpayers who do not understand the importance of this kind of science), but scientists and smart policymakers who fund the science know that these details are all part of a big puzzle and any bit of information may ultimately pay off in unforeseen ways, years or decades or centuries down the long road. Thus, are our basic curiosity about the universe, and our social ability to invest resources in that curiosity, adaptive.
More basically, knowledge is power (or at least, security). It enables prediction and control. If money were no object, there is certainly no limit to the degree of prediction and control an intelligence agency like our NSA would like to achieve over even the remotest long-term threats to a nation’s security—for obvious reasons. As much as we may balk at the kind of surveillance our spying programs engage in, if it could be shown (and surely they will attempt to do so) that another 9/11 would be averted through such deep, extensive data collection, then some people would have no problem with the loss of privacy entailed. Likewise there is no limit to the degree of prediction and control—over illness, for example—that researchers at NIH would like to attain, given unlimited funds. If a cure for cancer can come of vast linkages of medical records and trial data, who will dispute such a project?
We thus need not even invoke any “anthopocentric” motive of pure curiosity to see why an alien intelligence or civilization will, when capable of “learning all that is knowable” inexpensively and in an automated fashion, embark on such a project. Such a civilization will have gotten to where it is through the same path we did—through science. When the kinds of constraints we now still face, in terms of funding and resources and the limits of human bias and the limits of processing power and storage, are overcome through advanced artificial intelligence and robotics, such a species/civilization will be in a position to undertake knowledge acquisition of mind-boggling scope and resolution, and it will have no reason not to.
That civilization will send its eyes and ears and roving brains outward, everywhere settling in for the long duration, in large semi-coordinated numbers, learning all that is learnable over the whole history of every star and moon and planet, about its geology and weather and even its primitive flora and fauna (if any)—because who knows what will happen in a million or a billion years? Who knows where life will emerge from primordial muck? Who knows what tree-dwelling mammal might become a spacefaring, militaristic civilization down the long road, and thus be worth settling in with and watching closely and learning how to predict and control should that species ever pose a threat to its security?