I’ve just re-read The Scientist by John Lilly. It seems to go under two different titles. The first is called The Scientist: A Novel Autobiography, but later editions change the subtitle to A Metaphysical Autobiography.
There’s little doubt that some of the events he describes took place, but also elements that could be described as fictional, while other parts involve a high degree of philosophical speculation. For instance, the book opens at the beginning of the universe, rather than at the start of Lilly’s life, with these words: “The Starmaker stirred, awoke from his/her Rest in the Void. Consciousness-without-an-object turned upon Itself, saw Itself turning upon Itself.” There are a few pages like that, filling the first chapter, leading from the Big Bang, through the unfolding of the universe, to the birth of the narrator.
Next we cut to one particular Being who appears to have existed since the beginning of time. He’s resting in hyperspace, before born into the body of what we’ll come to recognize as Lilly himself. The Being crops up in later chapters as the extraterrestrial operator of the “Earthside Agent” known as John Lilly, but in this early section he appears to drop into and out of the newborn’s body, from where he witnesses his own birth. Whether that’s fiction or speculation, or whether Lilly is claiming to remember his birth, is unclear. From what we learn of the man in later chapters, it’s entirely possible that he might be giving us an account of an event that he actually remembers.
The book then proceeds to tell the story of the writer’s early life, but in the form of a dialogue with a psychoanalyst. He’s speaking from the analyst’s couch. These parts of the book veer from first person narrative to third person, depending on whether Lilly is using his own voice, or the operative Being in hyperspace who keeps breaking into the text. Later the Being splits into three, and there are a number chapters referred to as the Conference of Three Beings, in which the author’s life is discussed and planned from an extraterrestrial perspective. He calls this group ECCO, which stands for Earth Coincidence Control Office. This is one of the key concepts of Lilly’s philosophical life.
I’ve written about Lilly before, in an article about AI. He’s the government scientist who predicted AI in the 1970s and gave a detailed account of humanity’s final dissolution at the hands of its own creation. In his early years he was highly respected neurophysiologist, able to lead prestigious government departments involved in classified research. He was looking into the link between the mind and the brain. He developed something called the Lilly Wave, an electrical signal of a certain frequency that, when sent down an electrode inserted into a subject’s brain, would stimulate it to create a variety of different effects, such as rage, fear or sexual arousal. According to Lilly’s account, various US governmental departments took great interest in his work. Later he claims to have seen film of a donkey remotely controlled using implanted electrodes. He began to recognize the dangers of what he was doing and gave it up.
It’s a measure of the incipient insanity of the man, even at this early stage, that he conceived of an experiment that he’d carry out on himself. Thousands of electrodes would be inserted into his own brain via holes drilled into his skull, kept open by metal implants, to work out whether the mind was contained within the brain, or whether it had an external source. The idea was that the electrodes would first record the signals from his brain while going about his daily activities, after which they’d be played back. If he felt and acted in exactly the same way in the playback phase, this would prove the contained mind theory. If not, it’d suggest that the mind had some other, external source. Luckily, he thought better of this particular experiment.
Around this time he also took an interest in dolphins, recognizing their intelligence. He conceived various experiments to try to communicate with them, and led a prestigious institute in Florida. He bought a building which he partially flooded so that dolphins and humans could co-habit in the same space. He referred to them as “ETs from Earth.” At one stage he was also involved with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It was recognized that Lilly’s work with dolphins might shed light on a number of the problems that could arise from the attempt to communicate with beings from other parts of the galaxy. It was Lilly’s work on dolphins that inspired the film The Day of the Dolphin.
In the early-1960s, he began the experiment that he’s most famous for. He’d already invented the isolation tank in 1954 and used it for a number of years to explore the inner dimensions of the mind. It was during one of these sessions that he had first encountered the Three Beings mentioned earlier. Then, at a certain point, he combined his experiments in the isolation tank with LSD-25 taken intravenously. At that point, the drug was freely available as a research tool from the Sandoz Corporation, the Swiss-German chemical manufacturer that first synthesized it.
This is when things began to get really strange. He wrote a book, now a classic of psychedelic literature, called Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer. It’s difficult to describe. It was written as a final summary report to the National Institute of Mental Health. As he says in the foreword to the second edition: “While I was writing this work, I was a bit too fearful to express candidly in writing the direct experience, uninterpreted. I felt that a group of thirty persons’ salaries, a large research budget, a whole Institute’s life depended on me and what I wrote.” As such it’s difficult to read, full of technical obfuscation and mantra-like repetition.
Here’s the most famous statement from the book, a line he repeats throughout: “In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true, either 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.”
There’s a short reading of some passages from the book available here that I’d recommend, rather that delving into the book itself. You’ll see that the text is metaphysical rather than physical. By this time Lilly has crossed the line from being a material scientist to becoming a guru, not unlike Timothy Leary at around the same time. The film, Altered States, was based upon this period in Lilly’s life.
Lilly’s next book was The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space. This is an easier book to grasp than Metaprogramming, although it contains much of the same material. The insight that both books share is the idea of humanity as programmed beings. This is a useful concept. It simultaneously cuts through the mind-body problem while providing a nifty solution. The mind is the software to the body’s hardware in the human biocomputer. Using certain techniques it is possible to alter one’s programming, to become a self-metaprogrammer. The Center of the Cyclone adds particular mystical practices of Sufi origin to the techniques he learned in the isolation tank. As such it has a broader appeal.
Much of Lilly’s work is autobiographical. He’s experimenting on himself. This process reached dangerous proportions when he began using ketamine, initially to get rid of his migraine headaches—a condition he suffered with throughout his life—but later because it gave him entry to a strange new world of the imagination. He was injecting the drug on an hourly basis for about 13 months. It was during his ketamine phase that he issued dire warnings about the coming AI catastrophe. He conceived of an intelligence, which he referred to as the solid state entity, which would arise from AI, which would eventually take over the world and wipe out humanity. Humanity prefers warm, damp conditions to survive, whereas AI requires cold, dry conditions. Read more about that in my previous article here.
These later experiments with ketamine are unfortunate, as they diminish his reputation as a scientist. He was hospitalized several times during the period of intensive use of the drug and only stopped taking it in the end after a near-fatal accident, which he attributed to the intervention of his guides at ECCO.
In Lilly’s metaphysics there are two opposing forces in the Universe. The first is ECCO, the second, the solid state entity. The first is essentially good. In the Centre of the Cyclone he describes one particular trip he undertook, with his ECCO guides nearby as unseen presences. “I am out beyond our galaxy, beyond galaxies as we know them. Time has apparently speeded up 100 billion times. The whole universe collapses into a point. There is a tremendous explosion and out of the point on one side comes positive matter and positive energies, streaking into the cosmos at fantastic velocities. Out of the opposite side comes antimatter streaking off into the opposite direction. The universe expands to its maximum extent, re-collapses, and expands three times. During each expansion the guides say, ‘Man appears here and disappears there.’ All I can see is a thin slice for man. I ask, ‘Where does man go when he disappears until he is ready to appear again?’ They say, ‘That is us.’”
The second is a machine-like mind of terrifying objectivity. It has no feeling, no empathy, no warmth. It’s merely a calculating machine grinding out its program to an inevitable end, not caring who might suffer along the way. One of Lilly’s axioms sounds like a combination of the two: "Cosmic Love is absolutely Ruthless and Highly Indifferent: it teaches its lessons whether you like/dislike them or not." If you listen to him speak you’ll encounter a peculiar objectivity in his tone, as if he has somehow, in the process of his experimentation, turned himself into a machine.
These days Dr. Lilly is an almost-forgotten figure of the psychedelic era, less well-known than his contemporaries, such as Timothy Leary and RD Laing. There’s something quaint and dated about his writing. For instance, he uses the term “far out” a lot. In fact, it might reasonably be assumed that the expression originates with Lilly himself. He’s certainly travelling to some “far out” places, on the edge of consciousness, as well as the edge of the known universe.
But we can also see him as a sort of precursor to the New Age. His work with dolphins, his in-depth explorations of consciousness, his invention and persistent use of the floatation tank, his communication with his guides and with other extraterrestrial entities, his encounters with various therapies, all of this makes him one of the first cosmic psychonauts. His work on consciousness was groundbreaking, and there’s much that can still be learned from a close reading of his books.
As one of his collaborators on the dolphin project, Jennifer Yankee Caulfield, said: “There were those who thought he was brilliant, and there were those who thought he was insane. I, of course, thought he was a little bit of both.”
He died in 2001 at 86, just as the new millennium was about to take hold.