Philip K. Dick and the Symbolic World
In the wonderful Introduction he wrote for my upcoming book, More Than Allegory, Prof. Jeffrey J. Kripal compared my ideas to those of famed American Sci-Fi writer—and unacknowledged metaphysician—Philip K. Dick. Jeff wrote:
"Dick is worth dwelling on for a moment here, as his weird thought eerily reflects the more precise and calmer books of Bernardo Kastrup. ... You will see, in due time, just how close Dick’s Valis is to the idealist vision worked out in the following pages." (More Than Allegory, pp. 2-3)
Valis, of course, is Dick's acclaimed sci-fi novel, wherein he lays out an elaborate, gnostic-like metaphysics. Amazingly enough, I hadn't read Valis until prompted by Jeff's Introduction to my book. I write this article immediately after having finished reading it.
I confess that my feelings about Dick's book are mixed, with a part of me somewhat disappointed about its lack of metaphysical closure, whilst another part feels tempted to look upon Dick as some kind of Hermes-like figure, the trickster who plays the role of intermediary between people and the gods.
Valis has an appendix—the Tractates Cryptica Scriptura—wherein Dick summarizes his metaphysics. In Dick's own words:
"One Mind there is. ... We did not fall because of a moral error; we fell because of an intellectual error: that of taking the phenomenal world as real. ... The phenomenal world does not exist; it is a hypostasis of the information processed by the Mind. We hypostatize information into objects. ... The changing information which we experience as world is an unfolding narrative. ... Thoughts of the [Mind] are experienced by us as arrangements and rearrangements—change—in a physical universe. ... But we cannot read the patterns of arrangement; we cannot extract the information in it. ... The linking and relinking of objects by the [Mind] is actually a language, but not a language like ours (since it is addressing itself and not someone or something outside itself). ... This is a language which we have lost the ability to read." (Valis, London, UK: Gollancz, 2001, pp. 257-263)
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When I read these passages, it became clear to me just how correct Jeff was in comparing my work to Dick's metaphysical ideas. They touch on two key themes explored in More Than Allegory, namely:
- The insight that our understanding of the world as a reality independent of mentation is a mistaken intellectual inference. From a recapitulating passage of More Than Allegory:
"We’ve discovered so far that unexamined intellectual projections, based on hidden circular reasoning, lie at the root of our belief that an objective, standalone reality grounds truth. Everywhere we’ve looked we’ve found only circularity and projections: in the past, present, future and space itself. They are all stories—myths, though not religious ones—we tell ourselves. Once we’ve redirected our attention to our own cognitive processes and unmasked their self-validating nature, the objectivity of the world vanished into thin air. We’ve realized that, through the fantastic trick of self-reference, our thoughts make the intangible phantasmagoria of present experience feel like a substantial external world unfolding across space and time." (More Than Allegory, pp. 107-108)
- The insight that the phenomenal world—that is, everything we see, hear, taste, smell and feel around us—is a symbolic representation of the ideas and feelings of the 'One Mind' underlying all existence. In other words, the world means something. Like a form of language, the phenomena of nature point to something beyond themselves. But unlike an ordinary language, they connote something transcendent, rather than denote something ordinary. From More Than Allegory:
"Consensus reality may be a form of symbolic language attempting to point at something else. This ‘something else’ may be trying to reach out to us by appealing to our interpretative capacities. It may be posing the question: ‘Here is consensus reality, the best representation of myself that I can produce. Can you figure out what it really means?’ The question isn’t necessarily rhetorical or redundant, for the ‘something else’ may not know the answer. In fact, we may be the means through which it hopes to solve the riddle. We may be nature’s best shot at coming up with the answer." (More Than Allegory, pp. 59)
"The very essence of what it means to be a human being alive in the world is the linguistic hallucination that creates that world. There is valid information in the hallucination for the same reason that there is valid information in a nightly dream. Although the dream is entirely conjured up in mind, it does reveal—if interpreted properly—something true and significant about the dreamer: his or her drives, desires, fears, traumas, etc. It couldn’t be any different, since the dream is an expression of the dreamer. Analogously, lies—which are by definition untrue—betray something true about the aspirations and insecurities of the liar. For instance, a teenager who lies about his sexual exploits gives away not only his sexual insecurities, but also his inner need to be accepted by others. So the lie does ultimately reveal significant truth about the teenager, if only we know how to read it. Even an entirely fictional novel is bound to suggest something true about its author, since the novel is an expression of the author. So you see, that something is fictional, hallucinated, conjured up or ‘hoaxed’—to use Roger Ebert’s chosen word—does not mean that it can’t ultimately reveal important truth. The hoax is bound to betray the nature of the hoaxer, if only we inquire into it through the right angle.
"Myth—and therefore life itself—is how the ‘hoaxer’ symbolically projects out its nature, so it can perceive these projections as seeming objects and thereby inquire into itself. Without the projections self-inquiry would be impossible, for the same reason that you can’t see your own eyes without a mirror. The hallucination we call the world—including its history—consists of symbols of the intangible nature of mind reflected on the mirror of human awareness. These symbolic reflections are the ‘correspondences’ between the natural and spiritual worlds insisted upon by Swedenborg. The projected symbols betray something about mind in the same way that a lie betrays something about the liar or that a dream betrays something about the dreamer." (More Than Allegory, pp. 117-118)
These ideas are more directly explored in Part III of the book, where I recount the mythical story of a modern explorer of consciousness who took part in a secret scientific project. In the dialogue quoted below, what is referred to as 'mind-at-large' corresponds to Dick's 'One Mind':
"‘You know, there is something else I’ve been contemplating,’ I continued. ‘You said that we, living creatures, have an inside-out perspective of the universe, while the non-collapsed segment of mind-at-large has the inverse, outside-in perspective. This made me think of the Amduat, a religious myth from Ancient Egypt in which the world of the dead is portrayed as the reverse image of the world of the living. Indeed, it seems to me that an implication of what you explained is that the universe we perceive is, as it were, the reverse side of mind-at-large’s imaginings. Or, to say the same thing in a different way, what God experiences is the reverse side of the world we see around us.’
"‘Right,’ he confirmed. ‘The deeper layers of mind-at-large do not experience the world the way you do. The experience of sense perception—vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch—is unique to the inside-out perspective. As such, God cannot see or hear the sun, the planets, mountains, rainbows, thunderstorms, etc. He does experience something corresponding to the visible sun, the planets, etc., but in a way qualitatively very different from yours. Indeed, God’s perspective entails experiential categories incommensurable with sense perception. As you put it, He experiences the reverse side of the universe; that which is behind perception.’" (More Than Allegory, pp. 211-212)
Part III of More Than Allegory is a story that blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. It represents my first attempt to elaborate on metaphysical ideas in the form of a narrative, as opposed to a rigorous philosophical argument. This story format gave me much more freedom and flexibility to discuss what I really think is going on—what I really think the underlying nature of reality is. And as it turns out, having now read Valis, I believe to see a kinship between my story and the 'fictional' work of Philip K. Dick that goes beyond metaphysical content. Like me with More Than Allegory, Dick wasn't merely telling a fantasy with Valis, but using a story format to convey his sincere metaphysical conjectures.
Thanks to Jeff Kripal, I've found new, interesting and fertile avenues of thought in Philip K. Dick, which I plan to explore more thoroughly over the coming months and years.