An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Neural Paradox

Theoretic Prefiguring, John Lilly vs. Richard Feynman,
and the Mystical Impasse

David Lane and Andrea Diem-Lane

One is judged not by the experience itself but rather by one’s beliefs or opinions about his experience.

It is easy to have visions when one is meditating, provided one hasn’t slept for a couple of days. Hypnagogia which is usually defined as the “transitional state to and from sleep” can induce all sorts of fantastic apparitions and strange admixtures of light and sound. However, how one ultimately interprets these passing phantasms seems to be directly correlated with theoretic prefiguring.

John Lilly, who was famous for his pioneering studies on how consciousness behaves when deprived of incoming stimuli, came to realize that preset modeling played a transformative role in how one ultimately viewed inner experiences, whether induced by spiritual practices or hallucinogenics. His findings indicated that there is was an almost intractable problem confronting the scientific study of the mind because, “your theories or explanations will determine which experiences you will or will not have, no matter what experiments you perform. It is difficult to test a theory in this realm if other beliefs limit the range of available experiences.”

For instance, on occasion when I meditate at night and I haven’t had sufficient sleep I have very lucid visions of all sorts of phenomena. They appear just as real as anything I witness in the waking state, but these experiences are transpiring with my eyes completely closed. Once I saw a wonderful cascading shower of rain, filled with different colors, and it literally felt as if water drops were bathing my face. Phenomenologically speaking, I would be hard pressed to differentiate this hypnagogic state from what my normal waking awareness.

Yet, I am quite familiar with visual hallucinations and thus I don’t take such liquid displays too seriously and I certainly don’t give them any special meaning. However, and here is where Lilly’s understanding of theoretic prefiguring looms large, if I followed or believed in a different paradigm which took such lucidities as signposts of a higher spirituality (such as with Eckankar or MSIA which places a high value on lucid dreaming) I would most likely interpret such phantasms in a more positive and significant light.

John Lilly provides us with a telling example, as recounted in his autobiography,

“In profound isolation, one may have the experience that other people are present, or that one is receiving communications from sources outside the tank. What one makes of these experiences depends on one’s beliefs. A person who believes in telepathy is likely to conclude that the messages are actually coming from someone or something at a distance from the tank. Within such a belief system, the experience will be perceived as real. On the other hand, someone who does not believe in telepathy, having the same basic experience, will perceive the experience as unreal, perhaps calling it an ‘hallucination.’”

Interestingly, when John Lilly had mystical experiences of what he perceived as other worldly beings in his sensory deprivation tank (after taking mind-altering drugs, such as Ketamine), he argued strongly for their ontological objectivity. Whereas, Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize winner in physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics, who had similar experiences as Lilly (they were friends) labeled his out of body excursions as “hallucinations.” Feynman’s categorical dismissal miffed Lilly who then criticized him in a personal letter with the terse rebuttal, “you stopped being a scientist the instant you said that word, hallucination.”

Feynman countered Lilly’s assertion by pointing out that whatever out-of-body experiences he was having (and Feynman recalls becoming very good at) didn’t correlate to the outside world, even when undergoing the dissociation he thought they did. It was for this reason that he tried to convince Lilly that “the imagination that things are real does not represent true reality. If you see golden globes, or something, several times, and they talk to you during your hallucination and tell you they are another intelligence, it doesn’t mean they’re another intelligence; it just means that you have had this particular hallucination.... I believe there’s nothing in hallucinations that has anything to do with anything external to the internal psychological state of the person who’s got the hallucination.”

Feynman’s viewpoint, of course, is also underlined in the Bardo Thodol (or more famously known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead), which also describes the illusory nature of such inner encounters. Evans-Wentz summarizes the Buddhist viewpoint thusly, “"That all phenomena are transitory, are illusionary, are unreal, and non-existent save in the sangsaric mind perceiving them. . . That in reality there are no such beings anywhere as gods, or demons, or spirits, or sentient creatures -- all alike being phenomena dependent upon a cause. That this cause is a yearning or a thirsting after sensation, after the unstable sangsaric existence."

John Lilly countered Feynman by arguing “that the word hallucination is a trash-bin concept for a whole range of experiences that people wish to discount because they are unconventional or difficult to describe. The term is an unscientific generalization that confuses a multitude of significant processes and specific experiences involving internal reality.”

This apparently indissoluble impasse (mysticism vs. neurology? or superluminal vs. mundane?) has implications that are more far reaching and paradoxical than one might at first suspect. A pregnant illustration of this is how a limited purview can actually tripwire an erstwhile rationalist into believing something contrary to their usual commonsense. As Lilly explains,

“A behaviorist, usually the most skeptical and hard-boiled sort of psychologist, might enter the [deprivation] tank with the belief that nothing can happen in the brain without some external stimulus as the cause. Should an experience occur which appears to come from a source outside his own head, but with no such possible source nearby, such a person might then be forced to adopt a belief in telepathy in order to explain it. Within the belief system of the behaviorist, this becomes the only acceptable explanation for such phenomena in a framework that does not allow for any inner experience or even hallucinations. Paradoxically, then, a person who does not even believe in the psyche may end up believing in ‘psychic communication.’”

What is so unusual about this theoretic prefiguring is that, if it not closely guarded and checked, it can have devastating personal and political consequences, such that a relatively normal and sane person could be diagnosed as psychotic not because of their experiences per se, but by not proffering the politically correct map by which to adjudicate it.

As Lilly insightfully foretells, “Any normal, healthy person could have unusual experiences that would seem real if they believed in them [but] if he did not believe in them, the experiences would seem unreal.” In either case the experience is the same, but the interpretative model is different in each. If, however, “such a person believes in the reality of the experience and communicates this belief to a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist would conclude that the individual was hallucinating and might be psychotic.”

However, on the other end of the spectrum (as Lilly point outs) if the patient describes an unusual experience and professes not to believe in its reality, then this same “psychiatrist might be less inclined to assume mental pathology.”

This then leads us to a most unusual “neural paradox” wherein one is judged not by the experience itself but rather by one’s “beliefs or opinions about his experience.” Yet in most cases these set of beliefs (or more properly worldviews) were already in place before one had any inner experiences whatsoever. Lilly soon realized after his fantastical encounters of other beings and other universes (frighteningly retold his classic book, The Center of the Cyclone) that how one recounted the experience (as a believer in their reality or as merely an unreal hallucination) made all the difference in how the outside listener judged his relative sanity.

More importantly, however, was how one personally regarded such experiences, since some inner journeys were so utterly horrific that those who saw them as merely hallucinatory night terrors could liquidate their gnawing fears by recognizing their dream-like and unreal nature. But others who firmly believed that such excursions could be caught in a hellish nightmare from which it appeared impossible to escape.

As Lilly astutely summarized, “[such] explanations and theories are really beliefs about the universe and the mind. A particular belief may or may not be true, may or may not cause one to act in a certain way, but that belief will unquestionably set limits on what one can experience.”

How then can a science of consciousness proceed if at the very outset our neural prefiguring already contours our eventual adventures of the mind? John Lilly’s answer to that query has now become his most cited philosophical witticism:

“In the province of the mind, what is believed to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind, there are no limits.”

In other words, if consciousness is a virtual simulator then it can potentially simulate anything given the necessary information. The glitch here, however, is that a simulating brain is invariably bounded by what it believes to be possible, particularly in a society which by its very structure tends to limit what can be plausibly accepted at any one particular point in time and space. Breaking through such psychological and cultural boundary lines is, of course, a daunting task since such taboo breaking makes one a potential outcast. It is also dangerous since there is a fine line between acting as if something “may be real” versus acting as if something “is indeed” real.

Richard Feynman cautioned his would-be scientists at Cal Tech on their graduation day that “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool.” While this is certainly helpful advice, the problem is that our brains were designed to trick us from the very start since every experience we have of the world both within and without isn’t as Kant pointed out centuries prior “the thing in itself” but rather the end-result of filtering process which invariably colors whatever we see and hear and touch around us.

The recognition that the mind is a simulator par excellence doesn’t liberate us from its unceasing simulations, since even that recognition is part and parcel a simulation as well. We are living in a neural paradox which may be likened to an endless hall of mirrors where what think we recognize as real and substantive may on closer inspection be merely an image of an image of an image, ad infinitum.

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