Even a hard-core materialist should be fascinated by the sorts of experiences I describe in my last post. This hard-core materialist certainly is. Whether induced by mental illness, trauma, starvation, sensory deprivation, 3-quinuclidin-3-yl benzylate or electromagnetic stimulation of the left temporal lobe, these visions force us to recognize that, as William James famously said, “our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
Of course, we have visions every night when we dream. I often wake up after a particularly strange dream and wonder, Where did that come from? My dreams seem not profoundly, cryptically meaningful in some Freudian or Jungian sense but merely absurd, thrown together by some hurried, hack artist, out of the materials at hand. The result: I’m playing tennis with the surly Sikh lady who owns the deli on Route 9.
The visions I had in 1981 were not absurd and meaningless, like my dreams, but almost too meaningful. They possessed a mythical, archetypal quality utterly lacking in my dreams. They seemed too vivid, finely detailed and artful—too laden with metaphorical and metaphysical significance—to be the products of my puny, personal brain. They seemed to be the work not of some clueless amateur—a 15-year-old kid who just got a digital camera for Christmas--but of a grandiose master director, like Cecil B. DeMille.
Again the question is: Where did that come from? Do these visions “forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality,” as James put it? And should we cultivate these states—even inventing more powerful technologies for inducing them--or do our best to avoid them?