Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#4 Arjen Mulder 1 Jan 1996

Don't answer too quickly

With reference to John Lilly's Simulations of God

Theory only flourishes when a central concept is found into which everything ultimately seems to fit. To cite just a few examples: structure, sign, discourse, media, production, desire, seduction. If theory is not to become bogged down in its own inherent totalitarian tendencies, it must continually invent and apply this kind of new, magic words.


Don't answer too quickly - published in Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#4 (1996)

If an experience is astonishing enough, you'll believe in it. This is why drug users often feel they are having religious experiences, especially if they are using a psychedelic drug for the first time or have taken a dose of heroic proportions. A similar phenomenon occurs when new media are introduced: devotees of the old media regard the enthusiastic users of the new medium as 'believers', because of their certainty that their new medium is more than just the latest apparatus to appear and that it will change the world beyond recognition (again). Writers are convinced that the new medium of hypertext or internet novel will never achieve the status attained by the book in the course of centuries. In their eyes, this is not based on blind faith, but on common sense and balanced judgement. It continues to be astonishing how people can see through the unfounded premises in which others believe without realising that their own sharp insight only exists by the grace of the unprovable assumptions from which their thought emerges. Human beings possess the special capability of disrupting their own hallucinations and deliria with those of others in such a way that they can draw astoundingly sober conclusions about themselves, the other and the world of which both are a part. Time after time, this makes scientific and technical progress possible. With the rapidity of production on a conveyor belt, brilliant ideas, insights, paradigms and philosophical structures are produced and put into practice. And however catastrophic they may turn out to be for the ecology, economy or people's personal well-being, our enthusiasm doesn't diminish. The depressive insight that everything on earth is meaningless and futile is also an insight of genius, when carefully considered.

Isolation Tank

To my knowledge, John C. Lilly is the first to turn the old sophist insight that all human knowledge is ultimately baseless into a practical method of knowledge acquisition. In the late forties, neurophysiologists were in conflict about the question of whether the human brain can function without exterior input. One school maintained that you would fall asleep without external stimuli; the other assumed that you would stay awake. John Lilly was of the latter opinion. He based his view on literature research into the experiences of polar explorers frozen into their huts for long periods, shipwrecked sailors on rafts, bricked-in ascetics and others who subjected themselves to extreme boredom, loneliness and sensory deprivation. All of these survivors reported visions, revelations and visual terrors. Lilly succeeded in constructing an apparatus that accelerated the advent of these experiences: an isolation tank in which you can float without your nervous system being stimulated by sound, light, pressure, gravity, temperature or any other external factor. After having spent a couple of hours in the tank, Lilly was still wide awake, thus disproving the claims of the 'sleep school'. To his great astonishment, when he spent a bit more time in the tank, he had a series of initially inexplicable experiences. He visited people outside of the tank and others came to visit him in his cell. They came from earlier times, other places and even from beyond the earth. He concluded that the content of your memory and unconscious associations seem to be projected by your mind during intensive isolation.

A Question of Believe

When colleagues reported that they'd spent their hours in the tank wide awake and bored, Lilly concluded that your experiences in isolation depend on the expectations you bring to the experiment. Probably, his colleagues believed that they would be bored to death if they lacked external stimuli. One brain researcher had visions, but considered them to be nonsense. He had unconsciously entered the isolation tank with this conviction. Lilly then put together a list of possible convictions about inner experiences and picked out one. When he had succeeded in convincing himself of it to a great degree, he went into the tank for about eight hours. In one session, he believed that you can leave your body and explore the universe. And, sure enough: space voyages, other galaxies, intergalactic checkpoints, he experienced Olaf Stapledon's novel Starmaker in person. The next time, he believed that human beings are part of and completely controlled by a kind of non-human beings. And to his amazement, he turned out to be less than a switch on a chip in the cosmic computer that continued to function endlessly without his making even the most minimal contribution. The total flip. In other words, if you genuinely believe in any simple claim, it not only turns out to be true if not corrected from outside, it also generates a creative explosion. If you don't interpret belief as something to be preached or fought, you can use it as a means of exploring and researching a well-defined world of experience. Every religion is based on a simple point of departure (that the messiah has yet to come, that the Lord has indeed arisen or that there is but one god and that its name is Allah) that produces a richly varied and coherent belief system when put into effect. That those systems, as the isolation experiments prove, are based on hallucinations and deliria (or at least, can be experienced most fully in the complete absence of disruption or correction from the outside world), does not diminish their value in the least, as their world-wide success demonstrates.

Pleasant Experiences

In other words: in the same data from which the existentialists of his day deduced the senselessness and absurdity of existence, including doubt as the highest form of authenticity (a trick being employed at the moment by grungers and generation x-ers), Lilly saw a vast array of possibilities for interesting experiences. He had developed a contemporary scientific view of the human need for belief: a view that both perceives external reality and registers the internal reality that determines what you believe you perceive outside of yourself, or even are capable of perceiving. The popular approach is to base belief systems on experiences; the scientific approach is to base experiences on belief systems. In a word, Lilly had developed a view framework within which people are no longer helpless in the face of the autonomous functioning of their psyches, up to and including the most intense psychosis. Instead, he discovered an approach that allows you to only have pleasant experiences. After all, your deepest depression is as much a consequence of a belief system as your happiest moment: the choice is yours. Of course, Lilly knew that it is not easy to change belief systems in an emergency. You have to find a method suitable to the situation to intensify or to reduce the power of your belief system. As long as you attach no particular value to the religious implications of self-control techniques like yoga, meditation, drug use, gurus, group processes, gestalt and related therapies, you are in no danger of getting bogged down in the belief system you are using to liberate yourself from your own, oppressive belief system. As long as you feel at home in your belief system, there is no reason to change it, but the abovementioned techniques may come in handy to protect you from the possibility that your security will be damaged by outside forces when you don't want it to be. I mean: whether you are an open or a closed person is also a question of what you want to believe. If you think that you already have everything in you, the main thing is to admit nothing else.

Tailored Believe System

The idea that the supporting principle of any kind of knowledge is the corresponding belief system, does not lead to non-committedness, despondency or cynicism in Lilly's work. On the contrary, his work (like almost all sophist texts) makes an especially lighthearted impression. It gives the reader a boost. It contains the illuminating insight that people have the capacity to choose the belief system suitable to the moment and to work with it until the situation changes and they invent or adopt the following belief system. Lesson number one is that you can only believe in a belief system if it is suitable to be believed in. Not only you, but your social environment determines that suitability. You can still be declared insane, whether or not people agree that reality is a question of consensus about the question: what is real? Belief systems have nothing to do with any inner reality at all. Identity, self, mind and soul are like clothes that can be put on and taken off at will, that differ in color, pattern, fashion and so forth, are stupid, boring, sexy, exciting, trendy, hysterical, very strange and what have you. As long as you know which belief system you adhere to under the given circumstances, you are capable of predicting and manipulating the reactions of your environment. If you want to achieve something, you choose a belief system in which it is possible and take into account that the system may not turn out to be suitable. The idea that you can know something without adhering to a belief system is part of the belief system that claims that you can create fullness from emptiness and something from nothing, in a word, the artistic repertoire. In my view, the consciousness-expanding aspect of Lilly's approach is his theoretical claim that you can go through the entire creative and mystic spectrum, not in order to be absorbed into it but in order to remain outside of it. That you have such intense experiences while writing literary texts, or vice-versa; that literary texts emerge from intense experiences, says nothing about the value of literature. The loneliness artificially generated in Lilly's isolation tank is a medium for experiencing belief systems in pure form and exploring them to their utmost consequences. Not for nothing do you all too gladly renounce the belief after the isolation experiment. The value of a belief system can only be determined using the social context for which it's meant. In pure form, every assumption, experience or certainty turns out to be untenable, however intense its consequences may be.

Personal and Public Responsibility Scale

Perhaps this way of thinking might be described as a kind of friendliness. If you want something to be true, search out the circumstances in which that is the case. In his book Simulations of God, The Science of Belief,

1 Lilly, John C., Simulations of God, the science of belief, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1975.

John Lilly describes twenty-three belief systems or 'simulations of God' that he has had experience with: God as the beginning, I am God, God Out There, God as him/her/it, God as the group, God as orgasm and sex, God as death, God as drugs, God as the body, God as money, God as vengeful justice, God as compassion, God as war, God as science, God as the unknown, God as belief, simulation, model, God as the computer, God simulating itself, God as consciousness without an object, God as humour, God as the super space, the final fall into a black hole, the end, God as the ultimate simulation, God as the dyad. If you understand this, you can create the other simulations yourself, including your own. Note that God as love is not included, although God as sex and God as compassion come close. Note also that mystic models occur, like materialist mystic Franklin Merrell-Wolff's consciousness without an object, and more mundane things like jealousy and vanity. What Lilly researches in all these simulations are the questions: where does the idea come from; how can you evoke it yourself; how is it stimulating or depressing; how was it used in the past and how could it be useful now or in the future? How is a belief system good and how is it bad and inadequate? Which mental states does it facilitate and which does it exclude? Belief systems are not disprovable. What you can do is measure the advantages and disadvantages on a personal and public responsibility scale. Does the belief solidify your confinement in the I in which you've coincidentally come to find yourself, or that you've naively allowed to be built up around you, or does it allow you to exceed even your most benevolent goodness and existing insights? Don't only ask how you'd like a belief system to be and whether you meet its requirements; ask also what would happen if others were to cherish the experience involved. Would you want to meet those people? Would they want to meet you?

Third Eye

You can only understand a belief by embracing it blindly. The realisation that it is one among many need not diminish its intensity and only makes it more interesting: what does it offer that other beliefs don't? Belief systems are a means of testing and extending your inner wingspan. They are also handy for determining other people's range, as practically anything claimed about anything is an illustration of the particular belief system of the speaker. The claim that literature emerged from music or song is just as probable as the idea that writing emerged from images through ideograms, or the suggestion of William Burroughs that writing existed prior to the spoken word. If you want to explain why what you do is so important, essential or interesting, you present your belief system. For all activities based on your own experience, you must develop a personal justification, historical background or social usefulness in order to begin or continue, as experiences are not possible without a belief system. The accompanying story indicates that these aren't simply curious things you've experienced, but that your mix deserves the energy you put into it. Everything you encounter in your inner world has been given a form that allows you to perceive it with your third eye. The amount of things you can encounter is nothing short of miraculous. That it all has nothing to say about what is happening in the outside world is not regrettable, as you can use it to cause effects in that outside world. It is useful to remember that you ultimately only occupy yourself with hallucinations and deliria, as it gives rise to a certain caution. John Lilly points out that the belief systems or 'experience programs', as he calls them within the framework of his metaphor of the brain as a bio-computer, are themselves part of a comprehensive metaprogram. The evidence of this is that you can find out on your own whether your belief system is really letting anything in from without or you have become bogged down in it. In other words, more is possible than simply switching from one to another belief system; this is your personal development. You can also adopt a meta-standpoint which affords you an overview of whole clusters of belief systems at a time. Everything that doesn't belong to a belief system can be filed under 'objective reality'. It is not the business of theory to describe 'objective reality', but to deform it so that it becomes comprehensible, or, at the very least, usable.

Beyond the Media

Now that we are beginning to leave the era behind in which it was thought that every social phenomenon could be made readable by sticking the label 'media' on it, and a hesitant resistance is emerging against all the institutions, parties and individuals who believe that they can solve real, existing problems with a media strategy, the question arises of whether the concept in question can be exchanged for another term, within which human effort can be ordered and from which a particular behaviour pattern can be derived, in the short term, in any case. As a theoretical concept, the dumpster word 'media' is beginning to become exhausted because it has been stuffed so full of opinions, associations, empty talk and prejudices spread by the media itself that it leaves no room for the outside world. The media itself, as a complex of technical apparati, functionaries and views, has become a closed system, an inner world in which things are true when an address has been found at which they're true. That is why it is time for theory to find a concept that goes beyond the media, capable of clarifying that the media is one of many outward forms of a phenomenon or process that comprises much more than is recognised or accepted at present. The media as one among many – concepts like 'sign' (meaning, signifier) or 'discourse' served as universal keys for a time, until it was understood that a sign was a part of one or more discourses, and that a discourse was part of a medium or media. What is the media a part of? I suspect that this quest for the next concept underlies the now almost fashionable obsession with the body evidenced by many artists and curators in recent years. The idea that the body is disappearing in the media, that caused so much ado in the eighties, loses its charm as soon as you have had a chance to play with a vr helmet for a while. The idea that the media will simply have disappeared one fine morning, after which only bodies and objects remain, reminds us too much of exclusive tourism to be taken seriously. What does the media do with bodies? I think that it generates experiences in them, and if it was the only thing that did this, you would have to define a belief system as a medium plus a body. Theoretically assumed 'objective reality' also generates effects in the body; objective here is equivalent to 'alien to the body and the media'. This allows the step to be taken from Lilly's idea of the belief system as a bodily experience plus corresponding mental work plus corresponding practice, to a category that also includes non-medially induced states, programs, patterns, systems, projects or whatever else one wishes to call them. What is the media a part of? Don't answer too quickly.

translation jim boekbinder